Review: Europe on the edge of the precipice in ‘Munich — Edge of War’

This image released by Netflix shows George MacKay as Hugh Legat in a scene from

This image released by Netflix shows George MacKay as Hugh Legat in a scene from “Munich: The Edge of War.” (Frederic Batier/Netflix via AP)

PA

The last time we saw George MacKay running, he was sprinting hard on a First World War battlefield. In ‘1917,’ the British actor played a soldier tasked with delivering a message that a soon-to-be-launched offensive is doomed.

In “Munich – Edge of War”, the year is 1938 and the setting is London, then Munich. But MacKay is again the bearer of urgent communications that occasionally have him running through the city streets – such as delivering Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) news of Germany’s latest actions against Czechoslovakia.

We are not yet immersed in the chaos of war, as in “1917”, but we are in balance in its prelude. As Hugh Legat, MacKay plays a recent Oxford graduate and Chamberlain’s private secretary. Around London, Legat observes the ominous signs of a brewing storm – a barrage balloon draped over a building – while witnessing the intimate workings of a prime minister maneuvering to keep Hitler in check. Time has moved forward two decades, but MacKay is once again a small player in a big drama, desperate to prevent inevitable disaster.

The film, which debuts Friday on Netflix, is directed by Christian Schwochow and adapted from the 2017 book by Robert Harris. Harris’ historical novel was grounded in fact, but invented a handful of characters that swirl around both Chamberlain and Hitler. Legat is one such invention, as is his college buddy, Paul (Jannis Niewöhner), a German who now works in his country’s foreign ministry but is stealthily trying to sabotage Hitler’s rise (Ulrich Matthes). With fine period craft, “Munich – Edge of War” is a gripping and watchable historical thriller with fictional characters set as spies around political leaders at a deeply tense and ultimately horribly misjudged moment.

It is a moment often seen with shame. Hitler prepares to invade the Sudetenland, the predominantly German part of western Czechoslovakia. Europe is trying to gauge the full extent of Hitler’s ambitions, and pray that this does not mean another war. If Germany is granted a partition of Czechoslovakia, will that appease it and prevent further bloodshed on the continent? We know the answer to that question, of course, and knowing the outcome that awaits all “Munich” operators naturally robs the film of some of its drama. It also gives him a poignant emotion: fighting for peace is worth it, suggests “Munich”, even when it is a cause that is doomed to failure.

But it’s also a strange time to commemorate the appeasement of the fascists. The generally accepted legacy of the Munich Agreement is that Chamberlain was wrong when he landed in Britain after securing a promise from Hitler, announced “peace in our time” to the cheering crowd. The best justification for the Munich agreement is that it gave Britain and others time to build up their defenses for the war that would begin squarely a year later. But it opened the door to Hitler’s conquest. “Munich” would be better founded – and more timely – if it spent less effort honoring Chamberlain’s lofty hopes and more time examining why Chamberlain, Britain and Europe were not more aware of the clear and present danger.

The irony is that the most effective parts of “Munich” are the scenes between Legat and Chamberlain. Things like Legat’s family life, Paul’s conversion from patriot to radical, and Hitler himself are thinly and sometimes awkwardly sketched – a shame because Niewöhner is the film’s star. All of the women in the film — including Legat’s wife (Jessica Brown Findlay), their Jewish college friend (Liv Lisa Fries), and Paul’s conspirator (Sandra Hüller, of “Toni Erdmann”) — are underused.

But the sympathetic portrayal of the Prime Minister, taken from Harris’s book, is generally well interpreted by Irons. And MacKay’s vigilance keeps “Munich” on edge. There is tender attention in their conversations about principledness in the face of totalitarianism. Of course, a cheer for gentleman’s honor. But like Chamberlain, “Munich” misses the moment.

“Munich – The Edge of War”, a Netflix release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for strong language, thematic elements, smoking, and brief violence. Duration: 131 minutes. Two out of four stars.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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