Neville Chamberlain is widely regarded as one of the worst prime ministers in the history of Britain.
In 1938, Chamberlain celebrated Adolf Hitler signing the Munich Agreement, which he insisted meant that Germany would now stop their invasion of Europe. This didn’t work and a year later, the two countries had begun the Second World War.
Munich: The Edge of War takes a much more sympathetic view of Chamberlain, even though he’s not actually one of the main characters in the war spy thriller.
Instead, the adaptation of Robert Harris’s international bestseller Munich, primarily revolves around British civil servant Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and German diplomat Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewohner) getting caught up in political subterfuge.
Old friends from their years at the University of Oxford, Von Hartmann secretly provides Legat with vital documents that reveal just how deceitful Hitler is. But this only brings the pair to the attention of SS agent Franz Sauer (August Diehl), while Legat struggles to get Chamberlain to take the evidence seriously.
A melding of fact with fiction, Munich: The Edge of War uses impeccable set design and costumes to make it feel authentic. Written by Bafta and Olivier Award nominee Ben Power, it’s able to build in a smart and engrossing fashion, even though everyone who is watching will almost certainly know how it ends.
Power makes sure that there’s tension and intrigue in pretty much every scene. Most of the characters, especially Legat, are painfully out of their depth, as they have to do the work of spies, all while standing among the most homicidal men in political history.
German director Christian Schwochow does a clever and elegant job of heightening this intensity.
As well as deploying a rapid editing technique during seemingly mundane exchanges, he also seamlessly bounces Legat and Hartmann’s storylines off each other to amp up the drama in the opening act. Then, once the film moves to Germany, Schwochow creates genuinely suspenseful set pieces out of nowhere, which keep the film gripping.
It’s the performances that really make Munich: The Edge of War effective, though. Both MacKay and Niewohner bring an edge and energy that propels the film forward, but it’s Academy Award winner Irons as Chamberlain who instantly steals the show.
Calm, dignified, and thoughtful, many historians will undoubtedly have issues with just how close Irons’s portrayal is to the real Chamberlain, who was regarded as stubborn, deluded and inexperienced. But, for Munich: The Edge of War, Irons brings a presence and depth that allows the audience to think about the historical moment in a whole new fashion.
But while there’s a lot to admire about Munich: The Edge of War, it always feel too sensationalist and, ultimately, too predictable to really shine. Plus, considering the political landscape of 2022, there was also surely more space for parallels to be made to the current crop of world leaders.
In fact, even though it’s ultimately an entertaining enough thriller, when you look at the material, real events, and people that the story is either based on or inspired by, you can’t help but think that Munich: The Edge of War would have actually been more suited to a TV series instead.
Munich: The Edge of War releases on Netflix on Friday, January 21