While traditional American war films tend to lean hard into valor, sacrifice and vigorous patriotism, the British equivalent more often favors heart and faith, duty and stiff-upper-lip resolve, especially in the country’s rich library of home-front dramas. Audiences with affection for the latter will enjoy John Madden’s Operation Mincemeat, a gripping account of an elaborate World War II espionage deception that helped turn the tide for the Allied Forces in Europe. A far more decorous affair than its macho-burger title would suggest, this is a classy production with a first-rate ensemble cast, splicing the story’s intrigue with a poignant vein of melodrama.
Warner Bros. released the film in the U.K. April 15, with Netflix to follow in the U.S. and other territories on May 11. It’s a polished example of gently rousing entertainment for wartime history enthusiasts, along the lines of Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest from 2016.
Spirited and satisfying wartime intrigue.
The bonus here for fans of quintessentially British spycraft is the presence of a pre-007 Ian Fleming during his time as assistant to Admiral John Godfrey (steely Jason Isaacs), the head of British Naval Intelligence who became the model for the fictional MI5 chief, “M,” in the James Bond novels. Played with martini-dry wit by a debonair Johnny Flynn, Fleming provides the narration and is frequently seen tapping away at a typewriter on what the viewer assumes will form the foundations of his more celebrated career to come. It’s a low-key running joke that seemingly every second person working in British espionage aspires to a side hustle as a spy novelist.
The stranger-than-fiction case that provides the film’s clunky title is a plan purportedly hatched by Fleming and developed in 1943 by Naval Intelligence officers Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen).
Urgency was building for Britain to find a way into occupied Europe, and Churchill (a gruff Simon Russell Beale) had determined that Sicily was the ideal “soft underbelly” to stage the invasion. But given the ease with which the Germans could anticipate that move, a strategic military deception was necessary. The operation aimed to plant documents outlining a falsified planned invasion of Greece on a corpse that would wash up on the coast of Spain, where the information would be intercepted by Nazi spies.
The episode was filmed by Ronald Neame in 1956 as The Man Who Never Was, which was based on Montagu’s book of the same name and starred Cliffton Webb and Gloria Grahame.
This absorbingly detailed account was adapted from historian Ben Macintyre’s book (also the subject of a 2010 BBC documentary) by television writer Michelle Ashford, whose credits include Masters of Sex and The Pacific. Her script balances a methodical retelling of the complex military deception with robust character portraits of the principal figures involved, giving us a rooting interest not just in the warfare maneuvers but also in the personal stakes of those working behind the scenes.
A distinguished barrister at the Old Bailey, Montagu is introduced at a somber moment during a formal dinner that the guests assume is to announce his retirement. In fact, it’s a farewell for his Jewish wife, Iris (Hattie Morahan), and their children, whom Ewen is packing off to America to safeguard against the potential German occupation of England. A strain in the marriage caused by Ewen’s remoteness and his consuming devotion to his work casts doubt over their future reunion.
While brushing off questions from his nosy gadabout brother Ivor (Mark Gatiss), Montagu digs in with MI5’s Twenty Committee, finding a like-minded ally in Cholmondeley, a former RAF pilot whose big feet and bad eyes prompt his self-deprecating identification as “a flightless bird.” Admiral Godfrey is sniffy about their preposterous deception proposal’s chances of success, but Churchill gives it the go-ahead, so they are installed in a basement office and put to work.
The drama’s most compelling sections are those in which Ewen and Charles seek to make their plan foolproof by attending to every minute background detail concerning the fictitious Naval courier, Major William Martin, whom the Nazis must believe was shot down in the Mediterranean, carrying strategic military information. That begins with finding a corpse that can pass as a drowned man, a brisk search that Ashford injects with both humor and the solemn acknowledgment that they are commandeering a lost human life.
Aided by the staunch director of the Admiralty’s secretarial unit, Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton), they then work against the clock to organize the mission before the body decomposes, synchronizing their efforts with the movements of a submarine sailing from Scotland that would release the body in Spanish coastal waters. That involves not only preparation of the military documents and identification papers but also of personal possessions like a photograph of the Major’s fiancée, a love letter, even the receipt for an engagement ring.
That’s where bright, resourceful MI5 clerk Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) comes in. Insisting on a seat at the table in exchange for her contribution, she agrees to provide her photograph to serve as Major Martin’s sweetheart, whom they name Pam. Madden and Ashford deftly intertwine elements of a caper with the dizzying pleasures of creating fiction as the group fills in details of not one but two complete lives, William and Pam.
Where the film inches toward more prosaic territory is in the formation of a delicate romantic triangle as the widowed Jean grows closer with Ewen during late nights in the office or at their regular Soho watering hole, The Gargoyle Club. Their blossoming relationship, while constrained by British reserve and propriety, sparks jealousy in Charles, making him susceptible to Godfrey’s request that he spy on Ewen, whose brother Ivor is a suspected Communist sympathizer believed to be sharing secrets with the Russians.
That subplot is almost one too many, but the film’s melancholy undercurrents, and its keen-eyed observation of the solitude of all four principals, makes the more melodramatic strands both involving and affecting.
The luminous Macdonald is especially lovely as Jean warms to the gentlemanly attentions of Ewen, while Firth conveys the roiling emotions beneath his stiff formality, his uncharacteristic directness becoming quite moving when he summons the nerve to speak openly. This dovetails nicely with the story’s distinction between truth and deception. The indispensable Wilton brings her customary wisdom and clipped authority to a character fully alert to the interpersonal feelings among her colleagues while keeping the larger objective firmly in focus.
But it’s Macfadyen, shedding the smarminess that has made him so beloved as Tom Wambsgans on Succession, who gives the standout performance. Behind his horn-rimmed spectacles and starchy mustache, Charles is a droll though diffident eccentric, perhaps even envious of his war-hero brother, who died on foreign soil and whose return home for a proper burial becomes a leverage tool used by Godfrey. The “purity” of the love between the fictional William and Pam and its sorrowful outcome touches all of them, but Macfadyen makes Charles’ unspoken yearning quietly shattering.
Thomas Newman’s pleasingly understated score favors soulfulness over suspense, but the script accelerates tension from the moment the “drowned” body is loaded onto a donkey cart in Huelva, and an over-zealous local coroner threatens to derail months of meticulous planning. The grave notion of sending 100,000 men into battle in Sicily in what could well be a trap sustains that tension for the duration. Ashford’s amusing eye for character detail is evident even late in the action, with the introduction of Capt. David Ainsworth (Nicholas Rowe), a dashing British agent in Spain, willing to deploy his charms for the cause.
Handsomely shot by Sebastian Blenkov in dark, burnished tones befitting both the era and the secrecy of the plot, this is an agreeably old-fashioned movie elevated by sharp writing, impeccable performances and by a story all the more incredible because it actually happened.