As we move further in history away from the events of the Second World War, many of its more unusual aspects become public knowledge and enter popular culture. British cinema has always loved dramatising stories of their involvement in the war, from classics such as ‘The Dam Busters’ (1955) to more recent films such as ‘The Imitation Game’ (2014) and ‘Darkest Hour’ (2017). In fact, these films have become such a staple of British cinema that you can easily predict their formula - a radical idea is presented to a problem, a ragtag group assemble to execute the idea, personal relationships threaten to scuttle it, the plan is executed, unexpected twists occur and success comes, with thousands of lives saved in the process.
‘Operation Mincemeat’, the latest film in this sub-genre, follows this formula to the letter, almost to its detriment, but it’s in the gaps between these ticked boxes that the film surprises. Directed by John Madden (‘Shakespeare in Love’) and written by Michelle Ashford, the film focuses on an unusual plan in 1943 to deceive the Nazis with a fake Allied invasion of Greece, diverting their attention from a planned invasion of Sicily. British intelligence officer Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen, ‘Succession’) proposes a rouse where a corpse is dropped off the coast of Italy carrying fake documents outlining the invasion of Greece - an idea so preposterous that it may actually work. Cholmondeley is paired with naval intelligence officer Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth, ‘A Single Man’, ‘The King’s Speech’), and together with a team that includes Montagu’s personal secretary Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton, ‘Downton Abbey’) and MI5 clerk Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald, ‘No Country For Old Men’), they begin to construct an entire fake life for this man in order to make the story contained in the random items on his person as believable as possible. With the war reaching a critical stage, the pressure builds on Operation Mincemeat to pull it off, the fate of the Allies resting on their shoulders.
Again, all of this feels familiar and digestible, and some of these elements do threaten to derail the film at points. A romantic triangle subplot between Montagu, Leslie and Cholmondeley feels there just to bolster up the characterisation a bit, and the presence of Bond creator Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn, ‘Emma.’) as a kind of pseudo-narrator/chronicler, while vaguely historically accurate, feels a bit too on-the-nose and just an excuse for some knowing James Bond jokes. What makes elements such as these all the more frustrating is that they feel as if they have been put there to make the story or characters easier to connect to, when everything around the film is actually strong enough to work without them. The operation itself and the manner in which it was executed are so fascinating, so surprising, that anything distracting from this unnecessary.
At first, Madden and Ashford lean into the comic absurdity of the plan, so harebrained as to almost be childish, but the film takes an unexpected and welcome turn when the true implications of the mission quickly become apparent. In order to do this they need a corpse, but soon this abstract corpse must become a reality. The film is haunted by two figures. One is a figure we never see, Captain William Martin, the fake soldier conjured by Montagu and his team. We hear his backstory, his idiosyncrasies, his hopes and dreams, all as they are being dreamed up by our protagonists. The other figure though is that of Glyndwyr Michael, a Welsh man who passed away at 34 after committing suicide. It is his corpse that will become Captain Martin, but the film lingers on Michael for a moment. We are told his story, that he has no relatives, that he suffered deeply from emotional distress. We are shown a flashback of him in a hospital bed, played by Lorne MacFadyen, (‘Outlaw King’) with a nurse (Amy Martson) comforting him, trying to connect with a dying man unable to respond, looking up at her with tears in his eyes. Madden shows him alive, and then shows his body, the film itself coming to a quiet, mournful stop. In many ways, this is the decisive moment in ‘Operation Mincemeat’ that sets it apart from the histrionics of similar films. We are reminded that, while this covert operation might make for a great anecdote (“Did you hear about the time the British deceived the Nazis with a corpse?”), there are serious moral conundrums and ethics to be considered, ones we see these characters having to carefully navigate.
This palpable sense of melancholy serves the film well through its more obvious moments, and even serves to legitimise them, building on the tension between reality and fantasy that forms the backbone of the operation. The imagined life that Montagu, Cholmondeley and Leslie are concocting for Captain Martin is reflected in their own lives; the romantic entanglements they begin to indulge between one another support the loneliness or dissatisfaction with their real lives, with Montagu and Leslie almost assuming the roles of Martin and his imagined sweetheart Pam to help to creating the fictional romance. Much of the second act of the film is watching these characters get caught up in the game of their deception, the idealised history they are creating, almost losing sight of the important work they need to do. Again, it doesn’t entirely work, especially when so much screen time is devoted to it, but the film at least finds a dramaturgical thread with which to weave it into the film.
At first, Madden and Ashford lean into the comic absurdity of the plan, so harebrained as to almost be childish, but the film takes an unexpected and welcome turn when the true implications of the mission quickly become apparent. In order to do this they need a corpse, but soon this abstract corpse must become a reality.
‘Operation Mincemeat’ benefits greatly from Madden’s steady hand in steering the ship. The story is always clear, even as the subplots begin to stack up, and it moves with a stately determination. It is funny when it needs to be, tender, nerve-racking and, most importantly, respectful. There are plenty of delicate touches where the stakes of the operation come into focus, but also the humanist flaw at its core. One scene, where Glyndwyr Michael’s sister Doris (Gabrielle Creevy) comes to collect her brother’s body, has an appropriate uncomfortable sting to it, highlighting the sacrifices necessary in a time of war without condoning or excusing them. For all the many fascinating machinations of the plan and the British secret service, it is the respect the film gives to Glyndwyr Michael that leaves the strongest impression, and in some ways, the existence of the film feels as much an acknowledgement of the importance of this man to history - a man who wasn’t even aware of his role - as much as of those who placed him there. Much of this is supported by the subtle yet intelligent score from Thomas Newman, who brings his idiosyncratic modern sound to the film to navigate its emotional and thematic tensions.
It’s also a credit to both the strength of the film and the importance of the material that ‘Operation Mincemeat’ is able to pull a cast of this calibre. As well as Firth, Macfadyen, Macdonald and Wilton, the cast features Mark Gattis (‘Sherlock’), Alex Jennings (‘The Lady in the Van’), Paul Ritter (‘Chernobyl’), Will Keen (‘His Dark Materials’) and ‘Death of Stalin’ alumni Jason Isaacs and Simon Russell Beale, the latter as Sir Winston Churchill. Of the key performances, Matthew Macfadyen is unsurprisingly the standout. He has long been one of the most interesting actors working today, highlighted by his magnificent performance in ‘Succession’, and here he brings a delightful mix of bumbling enthusiasm and deep sadness to Cholmondeley. Across the board though (with the unfortunate exception of Johnny Flynn who just isn’t given anything to do as Ian Fleming but playing a ill-formed kind of proto-Bond, not at all his fault), this is an exceptionally strong ensemble, with everyone’s performances in perfect balance with one another.
‘Operation Mincemeat’ feels exactly like the kind of film that could slip through the cracks for some audiences, especially with continued anxiety about returning to cinemas during COVID for anything that doesn’t have a comic book character in it. It would be a real pity to miss this one though. It may do exactly what you expect, but it does so with an assuredness and an integrity befitting of its subject. When the pieces all fall into place and we come to the end of the story, it also leaves you with a final beat that solidifies its noble intensions, enough that I left the cinema with a strong, persistent impression of it. Fleming in the film often refers to the “secret war”, the one carried out in dark offices rather than on battlefields, using weapons of deceit and deception rather than bullets and bombs. That secret war still involves human lives, capable of love and fear and sadness. ‘Operation Mincemeat’ beautifully dramatises one of the most important battles in that secret theatre of the Second World War, and just as beautifully, reminds us of the human beings at the heart of it - all of them.