Film Review – Operation Mincemeat
The title of Operation Mincemeat (2022) refers to the real WWII mission in which British intelligence fooled the Third Reich with extraordinary measures. The plan was to convince the Germans that Britain was going to attack through Greece. In reality, Churchill’s administration intended to take Sicily and enter through the southern part of Italy. The twist: the military would use an actual dead body – carrying falsified documents – and release it off the coast of Spain. The hope was that the enemy would retrieve the corpse, gather the misinformation, and report it to Hitler and his cronies, who would then divert troops in the wrong direction.
If this scheme sounds like it came out of some James Bond spy thriller, it’s because it kind of is. Our narrator is Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), who was assigned as one of the officers involved in the operation. Fleming’s military and espionage experience would inspire him to create the iconic 007 agent. He’s depicted as a periphery character, observing events unfold and logging everything in his head – no doubt storing it for his writing. Fleming comes across a closet of spy gadgets, notably a watch that can be used as a weapon. In fact, many of the players recognize the absurdity of the situation and how it makes for prime novelistic material. In one scene, an officer remarks, “We’re surrounded by them.” “Germans?” someone asks, to which the officer replies, “Authors.”
Written by Michelle Ashford and directed by John Madden, Operation Mincemeat has a throwback, classical style. Set in 1943, the art direction and set design evoke the period with golden hues. Sebastian Blenkov’s cinematography is refined and sleek, capturing images without drawing attention to itself. The costume design and make up has characters exist in a heightened state of reality, where uniforms are a little too well pressed, hair a little too well combed, and lipstick a little too red. Patrons dance in nightclubs with smiles plastered on their faces, and everybody smokes like a chimney. These are not detrimental but lends to a nostalgic affection. As the narration explains, there was the battles taking place in the front with bullets and bombs, and there was another battle happening within the shadows. Although covert missions don’t get the visceral reaction as clashes on the battlefield, the fortitude to pull them off was just as important to the cause.
The task to execute the plan fell in the hands of intelligence officers Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen). The two gather a small group of associates, including secretary Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton) and clerk Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald). Together, they go about creating a fake officer, “Captain William Martin,” supplying an entire identity of personal details and government secrets and trying to figure out how to get him into the hands of the Germans. There is dark humor about this whole process, watching as Montagu and Cholmondeley choose a body, debate which pocket Martin will be carrying his wedding ring, and how to avoid the doctored paperwork from washing clean from the seawater. As grotesque as it may seem, there is something funny about Montagu and Cholmondeley agreeing not to drop Martin from a plane to avoid him from breaking apart once he hits the water’s surface.
These elements generate suspense as the day of the attack draws near. The effort to prevent the Germans from discovering the deception required an entire network of lies, double crosses, and fake outs. The challenge was even more difficult when rumors of spies infiltrating the operation’s inner circle began to spread. These facets all help amplify the stakes. Unfortunately, the individual character work is not as rounded out. We learn that both Montagu and Cholmondeley are suffering under personal struggles. There’s a less than subtle hint that Montagu’s relationship with his wife is strained. He sends his family to safety in America for the duration of the war. For Cholmondeley, he lives in the perpetual shadow of his brother, who is stationed at the front. He must bear the incessant comments from his mother revering his brother’s heroism.
In the middle of the two is Jean, creating a love triangle that is the film’s weakest conflict. Although Firth, Macfadyen, and Macdonald all deliver strong performances, the romantic back and forth between the three feels undercooked. Jean develops an attraction for Montagu, who in turn shares the same feelings for her. Their late-night walks after work end up being a mild form of courtship. In the wings is Cholmondeley, whose jealousy and shyness make him the odd man out. In a time where Hitler’s wrath of destruction threatened the entirety of Europe, the soap opera plight of three people doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Seeing the “will they/won’t they” storyline is not very engaging, and very nearly puts the entire mission at risk. Could you imagine the ramifications if the mission fell apart because these three couldn’t keep their hormones in check?
Nevertheless, Operation Mincemeat is an effectively made film. Although the central romance did not offer much, the strangeness of the mission and the means of how it was planned was fascinating. The latter stages, where our characters wait to see if everything goes right, is legitimately gripping even though we can guess how it all resolves.