In England Hugh Legat (George Mackay) is private secretary to the prime minister Neville Chamberlain. In Berlin Paul Von Hartman (Jannis Niewohner), who was Hugh’s close friend when they were students at Cambridge in 1932, is now a member of Hitler’s staff. And he is not happy with the direction in which his master is taking the country. As Chamberlain’s aide Hugh will be going with him on his proposed trip to the Munich conference, where the PM hopes find a peaceful compromise with the German chancellor. And Paul wants his old friend to work with him on a daring plan that will stop the impending war.
Harris and screenwriter Ben Power have cooked up a good story, which is interesting despite having to work within the confines of historical fact. The fictional story of the two friends, one German, one English, works well and creates a sufficiently strong tension even though we know they didn’t stop Chamberlain signing the Munich agreement. The background of their friendship as students and then later the political disagreement which blows their relationship apart gives them a satisfying context, though it would have been interesting to have heard something of their memories from when they were children in the First World War. Less successful is the superficial handling of the relationship between the young men and their women – Hugh’s wife (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Paul’s Jewish girlfriend (Liv Lisa Friesthem). Supporting roles is almost an overstatement.
What makes the film particularly interesting and original is its presentation of Chamberlain, who has had a bad press from history, which has tended to mock him and that apparently useless piece of paper he hails as giving “Peace for our time”. The film goes into convincing depth about his motives and the fact under reappraisal the mission wasn’t a failure, in that it gave the country time to prepare for the inevitable war and its citizens time to come to terms with the inevitability of the very thing they dreaded.
The film could perhaps have strengthened that with some illustration of the fact that the British people and presumably the whole of Europe apart from Germany didn’t want another war. The previous one was only twenty years earlier, remembered by middle aged women who’d lost their husbands and lovers, elderly parents still mourning their dead sons and many of the survivors, injured in mind and/or body. Supposing we today had come out of such a war in 2001? Anyone over the age of 21 would remember it. Would we have an appetite to go through it again?
In a compelling performance Irons not only gives a good physical impression of Chamberlain but he makes clear the man’s dilemma, his motives and gives us a whole new slant on him as dedicated statesman not wimp. It’s a timely and convincing reassessment of a man who has arguably been badly misrepresented by history – which of course tends to be written by the winners, in this case his successor Winston Churchill in particular.
Munich: The Edge of War is in selected cinemas until 20th January and is then available on Netflix