OPERATION MINCEMEAT

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: John Madden

Stars: Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Johnny Flynn, Penelope Wilton, Jason Isaacs, Simon Russell Beale, Rufus Wright, Mark Gatiss. 

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Another film that proves that often truth is stranger than fiction. A case in point is this true story of an elaborate WWII deception operation conceived by British Intelligence to disguise the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily by tricking the German high command into thinking that the attack would take place in Greece.  

The operation was the brainchild of the secret XX Committee under the auspices of Ewen Montagu (played here by Colin Firth), who worked with Naval Intelligence. The plan involved finding a suitable corpse, planting carefully forged official documents detailing the plan to invade Greece and personal items on the body, which was then washed ashore on the coast of neutral Spain where the documents would be passed onto to German officials by pro-German officials with the Spanish government. The successful deception changed the course of the war and potentially saved the lives of thousands. 

This story was previously told in the 1956 film The Man Who never Was, which was directed by Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Adventure, etc) and starred Clifton Webb, which was based on the 1953 novel written by Montagu himself. But in the fifty odd years since then more information, once kept secret, has emerged, including the identity of the “corpse”, which was only revealed in 1998, and these details have made their way into this new film about the operation. Operation Mincemeat is based on the 2010 non-fiction book written by historian Ben McIntyre and it details the nuts and bolts involved in putting together the deception over a six month period. 

The script has been written by Michelle Ashford (better known for her work on television series like Masters Of Sex, etc) who has added some back stories for the characters and fleshed out the main characters to make them appear more three dimensional. However, the human dramas being played out occasionally slow down the action and detract from the real drama of the deception. 

Colin Firth steps into the role of Montagu whose efforts in creating the deception were helped by Commander Charles Cholmondsey (Matthew Macfadyen), eager and attractive secretary Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) and the officious office manager Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton). The operation was originally known as Operation Trojan Horse, but this was deemed to be too obvious and the name was changed to the more grim sounding Operation Mincemeat. However Montagu’s plan was constantly disparaged by DNI Admiral Godfrey (Jason Isaacs, from the Harry Potter series, etc), who was less than enthusiastic about its chances of success and did his best to persuade Prime Minister Churchill (Simon Russell Beale) to reject the plan. However, Churchill approved the plan. Godfrey also tried to sew some dissent within the team by secretly pitting Montagu and Cholmondsey against each other. 

This is a classic spy story and it has been directed by John Madden, who is better known for the Oscar winning Shakespeare In Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, etc. His handling of the material is a little old fashioned in approach, in keeping with the tone of the material. His direction is straightforward without any unnecessary embellishments. He effectively ratchets up the tension as the subterfuge unfolds. There is some great production design from John Paul Kelly (The Theory Of Everything, etc) to create the claustrophobic basement headquarters of the XX Committee, whose war was fought in secrecy and shadows, and the period detail reeks of authenticity. Operation Mincemeat has been nicely shot by cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov (Miss Sloane, etc). 

Madden has assembled a solid cast of British actors to flesh out the characters and they are all superb. Firth brings his usual sense of decency, British reserve and integrity to his role as Montagu, while Wilton has a strong and intelligent presence. Macfadyen brings plenty of neurotic touches and twitches to his role as the fussy Cholmondsey, while Isaacs is suitably smarmy as the scheming Godfrey. Amongst Montagu’s small but dedicated staff is a junior intelligence officer named Ian Fleming (played here by Johnny Flynn, from Emma, etc), who is constantly shown typing away at his “spy stories”, and he later drew upon his experiences to create the famous fictional character of James Bond a decade later. His presence and his keenness for learning spycraft provides something of a running joke throughout the film.  

★★★☆

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