Synopsis – During WWII, two intelligence officers use a corpse and false papers to outwit German troops.
My Take – As far as cinema goes, it seems like there can hardly be any WWII stories left to tell. Hence, for some time now the focus seems to be shifting to telling fictionalized versions of real time events with more emphasis on the strategic ingenuity and political shenanigans played on the home front during wartime, rather than portraying bloodshed of the battlefield action.
Like the recently released, Munich: The Edge of War, directed by Christian Schwochow. In this latest entry into the sub-genre, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and screenwriter Michelle Ashford adapt the nonfiction bestseller by Ben Macintyre about the extraordinary British deception operation called Mincemeat which undertook during the Second World War.
Working on multiple levels as an old-fashioned caper as well as a window into history, this exceptionally well cast film shines in its impeccable look and understated portrayals of these unlikely heroes, whose vital contribution to the war effort wasn’t widely known until decades later.
Sure, while the screenplay does bog down a little when it indulges into fleshing out the lives of its main players, but considering how this handsome production transports the viewer into wartime to experience the difficult decisions and meticulous spy craft amid the uncertainties of war and counter-intelligence, it’s hard to consider this film anything but a success.
As if that isn’t enough, the brain trust also includes a young Ian Fleming, played by Johnny Flynn, who is still known for his creation of the fictional British Secret Service agent, James Bond.
Set in 1943 and at the height of World War II, the story follows Commander Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Royal Air Force Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen), two members of the MI6 program, who in a desperate to mislead the Nazis from the Allies plan to invade occupied Sicily, with the help of Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn) mastermind a daring plan.
The plan consists of floating a tramp’s corpse dressed up as fictitious Capt William Martin in neutral Spain waters, carrying elaborate bogus plans of a nonexistent invasion of Greece, a love letter written by the department’s Helen Leggett (Penelope Wilton), and the photo of their office worker, the widowed Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) to add plausibility to the trickery. Hoping they would fall for the ruse and leave the coastline where the allied soldiers were to land relatively undefended.
Beyond the logistical hurdles, the team also faces considerable skepticism from their superiors, especially Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), their conduit to Prime Minister Churchill (Simon Russell Beale), who is ready to throw them overboard at a moment’s notice.
A minor but significant chapter of World War II that would seem far-fetched if it wasn’t, in fact, actual history. A tantalizing one that demonstrates the lengths the Allies were willing to go: high stakes, mixed with high farce. Without a doubt, the steps leading to that prove alternately comical and outlandish, such as the organizers staring intently at someone who just might pass, in a photo, for their corpse. Montagu works with Jean Leslie to fabricate a detailed backstory for the dead man, in the process developing awkward feelings complicated by their personal situations.
The audacious tone is helped by the fun footnote that the operation was likely the brainchild of a young Ian Fleming, whose taste for espionage would later fuel his James Bond novels, and understandably, the film can’t resist a few sly nods-and-winks to 007’s future.
Here, director John Madden treats his subject matter with real care and attention, and nicely balances the ongoing grief and trauma of a brutal war with rich period details and even a modest sense of fun. When it really pops, the whole thing unfurls almost like a caper. What works so well within this film is that it manages to blend a number of narratives together successfully. We get to see the internal sniping and posturing within British military intelligence. We witness the wheeling and dealing taking place on the continent. And in that respect that this may not be the war film for everyone.
Sure, there are brief scenes of battle, namely the landing of troops in Sicily, but this is a film that is far more concerned with personal stories and brilliant ideas. Even the crackling pace is somewhat interrupted by a soapy love triangle between the three leads, which feels slightly shoehorned in, with chemistry that never fully materializes. We also never get to see the end of the sub plot concerning Ewen Montagu’s brother, Ivor Montagu (Mark Gatiss), being a Communist sympathizer and Soviet spy.
However, the film’s restrained acting powerfully evokes the sheer nerve of the men and women involved, their absolute commitment to secrecy, and their uncomplaining selflessness. The ever likable Colin Firth once again plays a man you are glad to be on your side, while Matthew Macfadyen brings much need subtlety and restraint to his role. Kelly Macdonald is commendable in her most fleshed out, interesting female character of the film.
Jason Issacs brings his familiar snarl into the mix, while Johnny Flynn is excellent as Ian Fleming. In other roles, Simon Russell Beale and Penelope Wilton are superb. On the whole, ‘Operation Mincemeat’ is a spellbinding wartime spy caper which maintains tension throughout.
Directed – John Madden
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 128 minutes