We first meet Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and Paul Hartman (Jannis Niewöhner) in 1932 when they are carefree students at Oxford University, swilling champagne and rolling around in the grass at a drunken party. Cut to London, six years later, and the mood is grim: Adolf Hitler is preparing to invade Czechoslovakia and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) is trying to find a peaceful solution. Hugh is now a civil servant, and has the ear of the PM.
Meanwhile, Paul is a diplomat in his home of Germany, and comes into possession of important documents that could help the British government. As the two prepare for a clandestine meeting in Munich during the emergency conference, flashbacks fill us in on more of their past, and the tension mounts.
Based on the bestseller by Robert Harris, Christian Schwochow’s film is a gripping watch but not a nail biting one, given the inevitable tragic outcome. Some characters and situations may be fictional but this is not revisionist history in the broader sense. And so, with the ending well known from history, the onus is on the actors and themes to engage, which they do well.
MacKay is a likable everyman, while Niewöhner has a charismatic screen presence. Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann) portrays Hartman’s colleague and lover — pleasingly, all German roles are filled by German actors speaking their own language (with English subtitles), rather than heavily accented English. The casting of Hitler himself is a notoriously tricky one, and Ulrich Matthes, who played Joseph Goebbels in the 2004 film Downfall, isn’t an obvious fit, despite a suitably chilling performance.
The question, ‘Would you have killed Hitler if you had the chance?’ has driven many a drama and dinner conversation, and it’s explored here, as well as the question of betraying your country for the greater good. Both Chamberlain and Hartman talk of potential self sacrifice, while Legat may be sacrificing a different thing for his country: his marriage. Jessica Brown Findlay adds drama as his wife, who’s frustrated that her husband has to dash off on their wedding anniversary, unable to explain the global importance of his secret mission.
With its themes and settings, this has shades of the recent Benedict Cumberbatch starrer The Courier, in which an ordinary Englishman was asked to become a spy. This will likely appeal to a similar market, and should play well with mature audiences when it hits cinemas and Netflix in January 2022.