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Munich: The Edge of War review – solid spy thriller slowed down by the weight of history

This Robert Harris adaptation will be sure to please World War II buffs, though an excess of plot means it fails to consistently thrill

Plenty of historical films face the challenge of trying to create tension and drama out of foregone conclusions, but Christian Schwochow’s Munich: The Edge of War takes this issue to a whole new level. Adapting Robert Harris’s novel, Munich asks us to believe in a situation in which it might be possible to avoid World War II, a defiance of probably the most well-known event in human history, a monumental task that often proves a millstone around the neck of an otherwise well-made espionage thriller.

After a prologue set in 1932, Munich lands us in 1938. London is being put on a war footing, and Hitler’s threats of invading Czechoslovakia are about to be put into action. Our guide through the turmoil is Hugh Legat (George MacKay), personal secretary to Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons), whose old friendship with the hot-headed Paul von Hartman (Jannis Niewohner), a civil servant within the Nazi government, lands him a spy mission he really isn’t ready for.

Hugh and Paul seek to convince the other world leaders at the infamous 1938 Munich Conference that all of Hitler’s claims to desire a continued peace are false, hoping these revelations will enable a pre-emptive strike that will, combined with a mooted Wehrmacht coup, decapitate the Nazi regime. It’s a dense, chewy plot with a lot of moving parts, which proves both a blessing and a curse. The sheer amount of story to pack in here means Munich can keep ticking along at a decent pace, but the inevitability of the eventual outcome renders a lot of the plot pointless, even an obstacle to the more interesting character elements at play here.

We are given too little time in the headspace of Paul, for example. In 1932, he starts out as an avid supporter of Hitler’s nationalistic ideals, but by 1938, he’s seen enough horror to do a complete ideological 180. It’s a compelling dilemma, the agony of which is played well by Niewohner, but we’re simply told about it instead of getting to see it ourselves, robbing Paul’s journey of a lot of emotional heft.

Faring much better in Ben Powers’s script is Chamberlain himself. Long consigned to history as an easy mark for Hitler’s lies, Munich instead presents him as a desperate but shrewd statesman, willing to look the fool in order to buy Britain invaluable time to be ready for a war he knows will be unconscionably bloody. It gives Irons a lot to play with – you can see the fear and resignation behind his public façade of jovial credulity, and his talismanic turn grants the rest of the film a sort-of by default gravitas that’s very welcome in this genre.

MacKay again proves a very capable leading man, though in a more stolid role than he had in 1917 or True History of the Kelly Gang, while Schwochow manages to conjure a couple of genuinely thrilling set-pieces as Hugh and Paul bump up against the Nazi security state. A veteran of The Crown, Schwochow is no stranger to expansive and earnest historical fiction, and Munich in fact feels a bit like a feature-length prequel episode.

With that in mind, Munich might have been better suited to the miniseries format. Fitting a bit awkwardly into the two hours it grants itself as a film, the German side of things feeling a bit thinly sketched (August Diehl and Sandra Huller are both wasted in generic supporting roles). As it is, it’s a bit of a jumble, but some gripping moments and actual serious-minded historiography will make it an entertaining night for any WWII boffins, a reminder that even the most clear-cut historical moments can still feel like a surprise to those living through them.

Munich: The Edge of War is released in UK cinemas on 7 January and Netflix on 21 January.

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