Oscar winner Colin Firth stars as a little-known British intelligence officer and unsung war hero.
There’s a ghoulish moment in the John Madden-directed Operation Mincemeat, a fictionalized dramatization of Ben Macintyre’s 2010 non-fiction book of the same name, where two government functionaries and nominal spies attempt to prop up a decaying, putrefying, green-hued corpse to take a passable passport photograph. It comically fails Weekend at Bernie’s-style–a living substitute eventually steps in to help–though it’s the only real indication of the gruesome horrors of war throughout the entirety of Operation Mincemeat, so-called for the seemingly ludicrous idea to float said corpse, weighed down by a woolen British uniform, sundry personal effects, and an all-important briefcase containing a top-secret letter detailing the Allies’s invasion plans for Europe in 1943. The ruse worked. Hitler and his command staff diverted military reinforcements to Greece instead of Sicily, and the Allies successfully created a second front in a war that would last another two full years.
Operation Mincemeat centers on Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth), a naval intelligence officer, lawyer, and eventually, team leader of the super-secret government sub-committee tasked with coming up with an actionable plan to deceive the Nazis on the Allies’s invasion plans, and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen), a senior army officer first to champion the “Operation Mincemeat” idea using a corpse, faux-identity papers, and a faux top-secret letter as part of a psyops operation. Their superior officer, Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), begrudgingly supports their efforts only because the current Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (Simon Russell Beale), believes the ruse has a better than zero chance of succeeding either on its own or in conjunction with similar efforts. He’s also desperate to turn the tide in the war in the United Kingdom’s favor.
Both are perfect examples of mid-century, upper-class British men. They’re taciturn, stoic, and reserved. They’re also guided by an unwavering loyalty to King and Country. For Montagu, however, the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies puts him a difficult position, not because he faces any kind of discrimination or bias in the workplace (far from it), but because Montagu, thinking ahead to the possibility of Britain losing the war, decides to send his wife and children to the United States where they’re more likely to remain safe. For Cholmondeley, a lifelong bachelor cohabiting with his grief-stricken mother who mourns the loss of her other, more favored son, the faintest glimpse of a romantic entanglement appears in the form of Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), an executive secretary who becomes a key member of the team, making significant, fundamental contributions to the plan.
What emerges, though, is a classic, old-school romantic triangle, with Montagu and Leslie, a war widow, developing unspoken feelings for each other, while a quietly despairing, unhappy Cholmondeley looks on hopelessly. As the romantic triangle barely works as a subplot stretched across two, relatively suspense-free hours, John Madden (Miss Sloane, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Shakespeare in Love) and screenwriter Michelle Ashford add a second subplot involving Montagu’s dilettante brother, Ivor (Mark Gatiss), his possible Communist/Soviet ties, and Admiral Godfrey’s manipulation of Cholmondeley to serve as his “eyes and ears” on the committee in general and Montagu in particular. Given Cholmondeley’s jealousy and envy, the script doesn’t necessarily make him a villain, but Montagu’s occasional antagonist, driven by several conflicting, ultimately contradictory motives.
Even then, Operation Mincemeat never rises above the equivalent of a slow walk in a city park on a summer day. The pacing quickens once or twice after the faux-secret-burdened corpse floats ashore on Spanish soil and the Spaniards, technically neutral, but fascist sympathizers by any definition, throw myriad obstacles between the faux-secret letter and its intended destination in Berlin. Those moments, however, are few and far between. Madden, Ashford, and a game cast are generally content to deliver well-rounded, polished performances in a fairly generic, ultimately inoffensive drama that sheds light on a little-known chapter during the Second World War.
Operation Mincemeat is available to stream via Netflix.