Colin Firth and 'Succession' star Matthew Macfadyen lead this World War II-set tale of espionage intrigue, which is based on a story so wild that it can only be true.
May 12, 2022
A twisty tale of high-stakes British espionage — one that spans secret identities, torrid affairs, country-hopping missions and a world-in-peril situation, too — Operation Mincemeat desperately wants its audience to know about its 007 ties. When it introduces a man by the name of Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn, The Dig), it lets the moment linger. It drops more than a few mentions of his fondness for writing about spy intrigue as well. And, when he refers to his boss Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs, Streamline) as M, the film even has him explain why. Fleming is also the movie's narrator, literally spinning a cloak-and-dagger story from the get-go. Plus, seeing him tapping away at a typewriter is a common image. Every single touch forms part of the feature's warm, well-meaning nod to the Bond, James Bond author's early years; however, it's also a tad distracting and unnecessary. Fleming is immersed in the IRL covert mission that Operation Mincemeat explores, and removing him would've been inaccurate, but the details themselves are fascinating enough without getting viewers thinking about tuxedos and shaken-not-stirred martinis.
Operation Mincemeat is a war film, set in the darkening days of 1943. It's also just as much a heist film. Whether you've only ever seen one Ocean's flick, have memorised every single word of Reservoir Dogs, or loved Baby Driver or Widows in recent years, if you've seen one caper movie you know the setup: gather a gang together, work out the nitty gritty of a bold but tricky plan, endeavour to put the scheme into action, then weather whatever comes (be it success, failure or a bit of both). Adapting Ben Macintyre's book, which also spawned a 2010 documentary, screenwriter Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex) is well aware of this formula. With director John Madden (Miss Sloane) behind the lens, Operation Mincemeat doesn't shy away from all of the heist basics for a second. But as with all the gratuitous Bond nods, a cracking real-life tale remains a cracking real-life tale — the kind that no one, not even Fleming, could convincingly make up.
The titular gambit came about as much of the Allies' efforts in World War II did: as an effort to do whatever was needed to defeat Hitler. Britain needed to make its way into occupied Europe, but everyone involved knew it — including the Germans — ensuring that any standard move would've been oh-so-easy for the Nazis to predict. Enter the operation that might've been codenamed 'Trojan Horse', except that that label would've been much too obvious. The plan: getting documents about the Allies' purported and wholly fictional scheme to invade Greece to their enemies, misdirecting them, so that the invasion of Sicily could proceed with little resistance. The crucial detail: drifting those papers into Spain, where they could be reasonably expected to end up in German hands, by placing them with a corpse dressed up to look like a British military officer.
Making that ruse stick — ensuring that the Nazis didn't smell a plant, specifically — was never going to be a straightforward move. It's one thing to nail the logistics of transporting the cadaver and its faux materials to the right place, and another completely to find a body that works, forge all the necessary documentation and build up a backstory so believable that it'd stand up to enemy scrutiny. As a result, Godfrey isn't keen on the operation, which was reportedly conjured up by Fleming, but it still gets the go-ahead anyway. Tasked with both fleshing and carrying it out are Naval Intelligence officers Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth, Supernova) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen, Succession), who amass a team of helpers including Fleming, Montagu's trusty chief secretary Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton, Downton Abbey: A New Era), plus MI5 clerk Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald, Line of Duty).
No heist plot ever sounds as exciting as it is when boiled down to a big-picture overview, and that's true of Operation Mincemeat. It's thrilling on-screen, though, including when it dives into the tiniest of gripping specifics. Don't trust anyone who tells you they lack attention to detail and don't care otherwise; when the minutiae is this compelling, focusing on every decision made, each item required, and every possible setback and struggle flows swiftly and easily. Body decomposition rates and submarine routes prove both essential and captivating, but it's the quest to establish the fictitious Major William Martin's personal life that's even more engrossing. That's how the widowed Jean comes into the narrative, and how the best of the movie's subplots starts to unfurl, with Cholmondeley sporting a crush but the married Montagu striking up a rapport instead.
Another narrative thread, this time about Godfrey's suspicions that Montagu's dilettante brother Ivor (Mark Gatiss, The Father) might be a Communist sympathiser, is far less critical. Operation Mincemeat is a saggier movie with it included — but rolling out a ripping true tale, then occasionally bogging it down needlessly, is this spy caper's approach from start to finish. Thankfully, courtesy of Ashford's witty scripting and Madden's snappy helming, the handsomely shot feature always remains solid enough to mostly float rather than drag. And it does look the polished period- and mood-appropriate picture, too — with help from cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov, who managed the same with 2016's Their Finest — and engagingly balances its dark hues and dripping tension with cosy "keep calm and carry on"-style determination.
Still, it's easy to wonder if Operation Mincemeat would've come together as skilfully as it has — aside from its few soggier inclusions — with any other cast. Enlisting men who've played romantic leads in Jane Austen adaptations works out nicely, spanning Firth and Macfadyen (Pride & Prejudice's Mr Darcy on TV and in film, respectively) as well as Flynn (Emma's Mr Knightley); silent yearning is silent yearning, whether over matters of the heart or for one's country and its success in global conflict. Macdonald is also as delightful as ever, and handles the love-triangle subplot with the grace and emotion it calls for. Indeed, it too might've felt superfluous if it wasn't so sincere, and didn't offer a lower-stakes example of the deceptions people spin and cling to — and the fictions they happily escape into — to keep buoyant. In fact, if viewers needed any other proof that this definitely isn't a Bond movie and really didn't need to emphasise its links to 007 so forcefully, unpeeling Operation Mincemeat's layers makes it as clear as a gleaming Aston Martin's bulletproof glass.
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