Munich: The Edge of War: like a bumper episode of The Crown

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  • 12A cert, 130 min. Dir: Christian Schwochow

It’s been a while since likening a film to a television programme could automatically be considered an insult, and Munich: The Edge of War feels exactly like TV – the chewy, prestige type – in all sorts of pleasing ways. A diplomatic thriller adapted from Robert Harris’s 2017 novel set during the last-ditch scramble for peace at the signing of the 1938 Munich Agreement, it mostly resembles a bumper episode of The Crown, with its poised performances, methodical pacing and sleek nouveau-heritage style, in which every other line reading and shot comes imbued with flinty significance. 

In fact, its German director, Christian Schwochow, also directed two of The Crown’s more psychologically intricate recent instalments. One was Tywysog Cymru, about Prince Charles’s investiture, and the other was Coup, in which Olivia Colman’s Queen anxiously toured French and American stables while shadowy moves were made back home against the Wilson government. It’s the latter episode with which Munich: The Edge of War shares its air of murky uncertainty – the suspense is sturdily and convincingly built, and has little to do with how events ultimately pan out, history having already spoiled us on that in advance. 

Like Harris’s book, the film makes the case for Munich not as a failure of diplomacy but as a morally necessary manoeuvre, buying Britain and its allies vital time to re-arm while exposing Hitler’s evil intent. Winston Churchill – then a backbench MP – never appears on screen, while Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is nicely played by Jeremy Irons as a nobly tragic figure, whose strategy of appeasement has less to do with naivety than the need to see decency through, especially at a time when memories of the last war in Europe were still horrifyingly fresh.

George MacKay stars as Hugh Legat, a young Foreign Office employee who becomes drawn into the final, fruitless push for peace being led by Chamberlain, while Adolf Hitler beadily eyes the Sudetenland. What makes the earnest but inexperienced Legat such a good fit for this diplomatic mission is his education: while reading German at Oxford he befriended one Paul von Hartmann (a terrific Jannis Niewöhner), a translator at the German Foreign Ministry and member of a secret anti-Hitler resistance group.

A flashback shows the pair’s friendship souring in the early 1930s with Paul’s embrace of German nationalism, but now he is evidently ready to do all he can to bring down Hitler himself, including passing confidential documents that detail his expansionist plans to the British state. Legat is enlisted to make contact, though this act of espionage is only one strand of a greater diplomatic operation that culminates in the four-day summit at Munich.

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