The title of “Munich — The Edge of War” makes this historical thriller sound like a documentary. Instead, it’s the sort of movie where a waiter approaches the upstanding young man seated with a beautiful young woman in a posh London restaurant and says, “Mr. Legat, Downing Street is on the line for you,” and of course he says to her, “I have to take it,” and of course she replies, “Of course.”
The prime minister inhabiting Number 10 Downing St. isn’t Boris Johnson (now that would be a movie — not least of all because he’d likely be the one with the beautiful young woman and needing to be summoned back to Downing Street). It’s Neville Chamberlain. That’s because the year is 1938. The “Munich” referred to in the title is shorthand for the Munich Conference, where Britain and France happily handed over a crucial chunk of Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Germany. Once back at No. 10, Legat reasonably asks, “Has anyone spoken to the Czechs?” The question does not go over well.
The word “appeasement” acquired its still-odious meaning at Munich, and Chamberlain’s declaration that “I have returned from Germany with peace for our time” would within months be revealed as perhaps the most wrong-headed public statement in human history.
The movie, which is based on Robert Harris’s 2018 best-selling novel, “Munich,” is currently at the Kendall Square and starts streaming on Netflix Jan. 21.
George MacKay (”1917″) plays Legat, one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries. The actor has a long, lugubrious, whey-colored face and spends much of the movie looking slightly pole-axed. This befits the character’s endless earnestness, but it doesn’t make him especially compelling. His German friend Paul von Hartman (Jannis Niewöhner) is a different story. He’s all hot-headed righteousness. As an opponent of the Nazi regime, he has every reason to be so. The two young men were chums at Oxford a few years before. Now a German diplomat, von Hartman seeks to enlist Legat in a plan to sabotage the conference and foil Hitler.
Legat and von Hartman are fictitious. Chamberlain, of course, is not. He’s played by Jeremy Irons. Last year, Irons was the only star in “House of Gucci” able to keep a straight face. Here he turns a waxworks figure out of the past — the brushy mustache, the wing collar, the world-altering obtuseness — and makes him more nuanced and vivid than either Legat or von Hartman. Irons makes every scene he’s in a pleasure to watch. An oddity of the film is its promoting Chamberlain revisionism. Duped by Hitler? Nah, he was buying the Allies more time.
Once various ducks have been gotten in a narrative row and the conference starts, the movie becomes pretty good. It may be that it seems that way because the viewer has gotten resigned to Christian Schwochow’s hyperactive direction. Tight close-ups, jittery hand-held camera — lots and lots of jittery hand-held camera. The idea, presumably, is to impart urgency, immediacy, dynamism. Instead it causes visual exhaustion. The period details are quite nicely done, which makes the wildly anachronistic camerawork all the more of a distraction.
There are two further complaints to lodge. One concerns someone seen too little, the other someone seen too much. Liv Lisa Fries, who as Charlotte Ritter is the heart, soul, and sparkplug of the Netflix series “Babylon Berlin,” appears at the opening of the movie, a flashback to Legat’s and von Hartman’s undergraduate days. Alas, she figures in only two other scenes.
The actor seen too much is Ulrich Matthes, who plays Hitler. This casting is a promotion, of sorts, since Matthes played Joseph Goebbels in “Downfall,” the 2004 film where Bruno Ganz so memorably played Hitler. Unlike Ganz, Matthes really doesn’t look like the Fuehrer. This is highly distracting. Now those scenes are where some jittery hand-held camera would have been welcome, letting us be distracted from distraction by distraction.
MUNICH — THE EDGE OF WAR
Directed by Christian Schwochow. Written by Ben Power; based on Robert Harris’s novel “Munich.” Starring George MacKay, Jannis Niewöhner, Jeremy Irons. At Kendall Square; starts streaming on Netflix Jan. 21. 129 minutes. PG-13 (some strong language, thematic elements, smoking, brief violence). In English and German, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.