Englishman John Madden is known mostly as the director of the Best Picture-winning “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel” franchise, yet his resume includes other titles (“Proof,” “The Debt,” “Miss Sloane”) that indicate there’s more to his talents than churning out mildly pleasant and innocuous fluff.
Ranking right alongside “The Debt” in terms of superb acting, writing, directing, and overall quality, “Operation Mincemeat” is another story of spies trying to outwit their counterparts, only the events in this movie basically happened. Like so many other films released during and since World War II ended over 75 years ago, it proves there is a near bottomless well of source material heralding mostly unknown men and women who worked tirelessly to defeat the Axis powers and the spread of tyranny and fascism.
Based on the book of the same name by Ben Macintyre, screenwriter Michelle Ashford (“John Adams,” “The Pacific”) opens with a brilliant flash-forward scene which isn’t realized in full until the final five minutes of the movie. It’s not an original framing device but it works like gangbusters here, and immediately ropes us in.
Colin Firth is perfectly cast as Ewan Montagu, a Naval officer who is charged with coming up with a plan to throw off the German army which is planning on preventing an Allied invasion against Nazi troops currently occupying Sicily.
Warning: Non-Spoiler Spoiler Alert Ahead
Montagu and his team determine that low-tech subterfuge would be the best option and want to fool the Germans into thinking the real Allied target is Greece. The trick is in devising a way to divulge their misinformation via a decoy without being too obvious about it. Inherently paranoid, glass half-empty types, spies throughout the history of war are acutely aware of the double and triple cross and are trained (or are self-instructed) to recognize when their enemy is trying too hard to be noticed or purposefully planting obvious intelligence booby-traps.
Succeeding in ventures such as this requires tiptoeing along a razor’s edge and brings with it a high probability of failure. Just one tiny miscalculation and everything will be all for naught. The plan started with finding a deceased English soldier (preferably a pilot) without any family, give him a barely traceable new identity, and have the corpse show up in shallow Spanish waters clutching a briefcase full of “top” military secrets. Hopefully, the dead body will make its way to the German consulate and, ultimately, Nazi headquarters in Berlin. What on Earth could possibly go wrong?
Fleming, Ian Fleming
Working out of a basement far below the streets of London, Montagu and his top assistants Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) and Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn, “The Outfit”), yes, that Ian Fleming, present their idea to Rear Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs). Godfrey (who Fleming based his future iconic “James Bond” “M” character on) pooh-poohs the plan in part because he thinks it’s a stupid idea but he’s also resentful that his superiors awarded this assignment to Montagu. Godfrey remains the persnickety fly in the ointment for the duration.
Intently observing the three men from the secretarial pool, the eager-to-contribute Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) seizes the opportunity by allowing them to use an old photo of her as one of the items to plant on the dead man (she will be his fake girlfriend). In exchange, she wants in on planning the operation—something which thrills the twitchy bachelor Cholmondeley beyond repair, as he is thoroughly infatuated with her—while the married Montagu (at least initially) appears nonplussed.
The filmmakers spend close to half of the entire 128-minute running time on the “floating pilot” aspect of the story which, on paper, might appear to be overindulgent, tedious, and boring, but the exact opposite is true. While the film includes several staples found on the spy flick checklist (covert meetings, smoke-filled barrooms, ominous narration), it’s the meticulous forging of bogus documents, keepsakes, ticket stubs, incidentals, and the like that plays out like a high stakes scavenger hunt and it keeps the viewer glued to the screen.
A Nod to the Classics
With hints of “Casablanca,” “To Have and Have Not,” and “Mrs. Miniver,” the final half of the movie pays equal attention to the personalities and private lives of the principal characters, and the waiting-on-eggshells tension of all involved nervously looking for conformation that their plan actually worked.
In Ken Burns’s landmark documentary “The Civil War,” Confederate General Robert E. Lee is quoted as saying “it is a good thing that war is so terrible, otherwise men would grow too fond of it.”
There have been hundreds and hundreds of movies about World War II and most of them are pretty good, some are great, and a few are masterpieces. Those rising to the top of the heap never fail to remind us that, as romantic as it is sometimes portrayed and no matter how many heroes it might create, war comes with a tremendous loss of blood and treasure.
“Operation Mincemeat” won’t make it on to my own personal Top 5 or even Top 10 World War II movies, but it would make by Top 25, which is still saying a lot. This was a terrible series of events in human history and, luckily, the good guys ultimately prevailed, but with it so much of a cost and, for the most part, Hollywood has portrayed these stories with accuracy, care, and respect.
Be sure to check back on Memorial Day weekend for my “Top 5 Best World War II movies” article.
Presented in English with infrequent subtitled German and Spanish.
Director: John Madden
Stars: Colin Firth, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Jason Isaacs, Dylan O’Brien
Running Time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: May 11, 2022
Rating: 4.5 out of 5