There’s much talk of the proverbial British stiff upper lip in “Munich: The Edge of War,” as that dignified reserve mutates into damaging caution in matters of politics, days away from the start of the Second World War. In the film’s opening scene, a German Oxford student criticizes his host country as being “distant from feeling,” but if there’s some truth to his observation, this British-German co-production largely takes the same aloof tack. Immersively crafted but never emotionally involving, director Christian Schwochow’s handsome imagining of underground attempts to prevent war during the 1938 Munich conference flip-flops between the perspectives of George MacKay’s English political aide and Jannis Niewöhner’s German turncoat, spreading its sympathies between them.
The resulting historical drama is unavoidably sapped of tension by our knowledge of precisely what happened next, though it’s gripping enough on an in-the-moment basis. Based on a novel by wartime fiction specialist Robert Harris, the film’s stern, businesslike demeanor and rich period detail lend it a ring of truth, though its ticking-clock timeline is only a notch less outlandish than the wildly ahistorical remix of First World War lore in Matthew Vaughan’s “The King’s Man.” Still, war history buffs willing to suspend disbelief should be the prime target for this polished Netflix production.
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For MacKay, meanwhile, “Munich” may outwardly seem a logical follow-up to his breakout turn in the war-themed “1917,” though it’s a surprisingly muted showcase for the star. As Hugh Legat, a dour, by-the-book Whitehall secretary plunged over his head into an urgent espionage mission, he’s ultimately stuck playing the less expressive and less adventurous of the film’s two principal roles. Playing Paul von Hartman, a German nationalist turned undercover resistance agent, the excellent Niewöhner (fresh from Schwochow’s other 2021 premiere, “Je Suis Karl”) has both the livelier character and the more gung-ho narrative arc. But it’s the Englishman’s perspective — not just that of Hugh, but Jeremy Irons’ dry, decent but fatally unheroic Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain — that this predominantly English-language affair ultimately favors.
An Oxford-set 1932 prologue briefly introduces Hugh and Paul as carousing college buddies, living it up with Paul’s Jewish German girlfriend Lena (Liv Lisa Fries), before cutting to the sourer times of 1938. A workaholic seemingly long estranged from his Oxford pals, Hugh appears to have aged about 20 years in six. Ben Power’s script lingers rather too long on his strained marriage to Pamela (Jessica Brown Findlay, thanklessly cast) and is slow to get to the mission at hand, as Western leaders are summoned to Munich for negotiations with Adolf Hitler (a gaunt, unnerving Ulrich Matthes), to prevent what even the most barely-informed viewer knows is inevitable.
Chamberlain is peace-minded but wary of new ideas, determined to see his own stubborn strategy though. Ministerial advisors draft in Hugh to join the British contingent in Munich, and to covertly investigate intelligence offered by German allies in Hitler’s employ — which is where Paul, rather too long absent from proceedings, comes back into play. The old friends’ awkward, unexpected reunion exposes intriguing character tensions that Power and Schwochow have scant time to explore, given the urgent, ominously looming WWII-ness of it all.
Though it unfolds over a generous two hours, “Munich” can feel dramatically cramped, restless for the miniseries form that might fit this material more naturally. It would certainly benefit from teasing out the backstory of Paul’s political about-face from Nazi to radical, which would be markedly more interesting than Hugh’s career-versus-marriage angst. Perhaps it could even help justify the casting of the always-welcome Sandra Hüller in a strangely abbreviated role as Paul’s lover-conspirator in the civil service.
As it is, the meat here lies principally in Hugh’s quiet debates of principle and political honor with Chamberlain, to whom Irons brings a melancholic, poignantly exhausted air of grace. It’s easy to appreciate the restraint and intelligence with which these exchanges are written, just as there are subtle formal rewards in the film’s gilded, autumnal lensing and magisterial score. But there’s a more impassioned, full-blooded human drama here, slipping through the filmmakers’ fingers — a minor missed opportunity, in a story of major ones.
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