REVIEW

Review: Munich - The Edge of War reassesses Neville Chamberlain

Munich: The Edge of War (M, 130 minutes)

4 stars

It's fascinating to see how countries that were enemies during world wars last century, countries like the US and Japan, Britain and Germany, were closely linked on certain levels beforehand. It makes you think, when the media brings us stories about how the edge of war is a precipice on which we are indefinitely camped.

Jannis Niewohner, left, and Sandra Huller in Munich - The Edge of War. Picture: Frederic Batier/Netflix

Jannis Niewohner, left, and Sandra Huller in Munich - The Edge of War. Picture: Frederic Batier/Netflix

The writers of this high-end period drama and espionage thriller set during the lead in to World War II have a bit both ways, melding a fictional narrative with the facts of events. Ben Power has adapted the novel by Robert Harris, Munich:The Edge of War, in which the two lead characters have some basis in real life - though Harris doesn't make too strong a point of it.

Young Britons like Hugh Legat (George MacKay) did German studies at Oxford, and made friends with young Germans studying there, like Paul von Hartman (Jannis Niewohner) and Lenya (Liv Lisa Fries). In the opening scenes Legat is at Oxford, attending a posh party in glorious campus grounds with his two close companions. As the champagne takes hold, the spirited free-wheeling Lenya will remind devotees of Fries' role in TV series Babylon Berlin, also set in the 1930s.

There are stunning moments in this cloak-and-dagger story with its lustrous, high production values, so impressive and immersive in their rather old-fashioned way.

Cut to very different times in London, six years later. A crashed zeppelin is draped over a city facade. Is this a rather obvious hint at the recent Hindenburg disaster across the Atlantic? The deflated carcass seems to bode ill for the times, as do the revelations about Legat's personal life.

Legat has become a civil servant, elevated to being a private secretary at 10 Downing Street in the years leading in to World War II. His knowledge of German has taken him to high places during the diplomatically fraught prime ministership of Neville Chamberlain, who is trying to balance the right message to an increasingly aggressive Germany under Adolf Hitler with Britain's obligations to its continental allies.

Over in Germany, Paul has been observing the changes in his homeland under Hitler and become a committed enemy of Nazism. Also a government official, he comes into possession of a document that sets out Hitler's true plans for expansion in Europe. It is proof of the countdown to war.

An interesting revelation in Munich:The Edge of War, is the perspective on Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) whose personality and legacy get an interesting treatment here.

While Irons has a tendency to overegg the pudding, his interpretation based on the writing by Harris and Power invites audiences to reassess.

The British leader has been frequently ridiculed in history for his stance of appeasement but, the film claims, Chamberlain's actions allowed his country time to rearm.

This was a course of action it took up with vigour prior to the outbreak of war.

The Chamberlain that Irons plays is a reasonable man.

He is resistant to sending young men off to war and to inflicting more suffering on a war-weary British public.

Perhaps we would have had to be the proverbial fly on the wall to know whether he stubbornly ignored clear signs, because we can never know.

During the period marked out by the film it is Chamberlain's war, not yet Churchill's.

The actions of an apparently conciliatory, appeasing Britain are the background to the relationship between its appealing and relatable lead characters, Hugh and Paul, and Lenya, the woman for whom they vied.

Paul's passion for his country and the new leader who made his countrymen proud again ended his friendship with Hugh, until they encountered each other again at the Munich Conference in September 1938.

The tension in a drama of two young men compromised for principle is compelling.

Carrying out an act of espionage on foreign soil and undermining the strategic interests of one's government makes for some thrilling moments, from clandestine meetings to trips through the city of Munich with its billowing red flags and other symbols of rampant Nazism.

There are stunning moments in this cloak-and-dagger story with its lustrous, high production values, so impressive and immersive in their rather old-fashioned way.

And yet, as a "what if the tide could have been turned" story, Munich :The Edge of War - directed by Christian Schwochow - isn't as compelling as it might be. Although it does show there is always room to question a given opinion about the main players in history.

This story What-if spy story has its moments first appeared on The Canberra Times.