Operation Mincemeat stars Colin Firth in a straightforward retelling of a WWII strategy to trick Nazis with a decoy corpse
It might sound like the title for a gory, straight-to-video action movie, but Operation Mincemeat was a real World War II strategy – a secret Allied scheme to deceive the Nazis by dropping a corpse carrying fake military plans into enemy terrain, in the hopes that it might divert Hitler's forces from the real invasion planned for Sicily.
Despite the absurdist potential of a story involving a reluctantly heroic stiff, this version of the event, from British filmmaker John Madden (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; Shakespeare in Love), is an earnest and tastefully mounted dramatic thriller starring a cast of plummy thespians, including not one but two erstwhile Mr Darcys, in Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen (Pride and Prejudice).
At this point, these movies are starting to feel suspiciously like parodies of cinema for an older audience.
It's 1943 and – for those who haven't been paying attention for the last 75 years – the war is at a stalemate. Allied forces are plotting a crucial invasion of Sicily, but in order to divert attention from the operation and give their troops the best chance at success, they're determined to leak information to Nazi intelligence about a bogus campaign launching in Greece.
The plan is the remit of the Twenty Committee, a secret cabal of British intelligence strategists dominated by the steely John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), who run a hidden war in the shadows where – as the film's narrator hilariously informs us – "the truth is protected by a bodyguard of lies".
The Committee's ranks include one Ian Fleming (Emma.'s Johnny Flynn, yet another Austen movie alumni), a young naval intelligence officer who refers to Godfrey as 'M' because he reminds him of his mother's authority. Among the other starchy, stiff-upper-lip caricatures, there's an officer named Bentley Purchase (Paul Ritter). Presumably, Basil Exposition is somewhere just out of frame.
The corpse drop is the brainchild of Firth's intelligence officer Ewen Montagu, a middle-aged judge who family and friends believe to be serving as a naval commander. His plan has committee support in Macfadyen's agent Charles Cholmondeley, wily administrator Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton), and ambitious secretary Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), who agrees to pose as the dead man's sweetheart in exchange for a seat at the table.
Together they set out to find a cadaver that might convincingly pass as a deceased Royal Air Force pilot. It's a plan that just might be crazy enough to work: the corpse will wash ashore in Spain carrying not-so-secret plans concerning an Allied attack on Greece, while a network of double agents will ensure the fake intel finds its way to Berlin.
Not since Weekend at Bernie's has a stiff played such a pivotal role in the outcome of history.
In Madden's version of the story, the committee selects the corpse of a vagrant (portrayed in flashback by Lorne MacFadyen) who drank himself to death on rat poison. There's debate about the real-life identity of the body the British used: some accounts suggest it was a deceased navy man, while Montagu himself said the corpse was "a bit of a ne'er-do-well, and that the only worthwhile thing that he ever did, he did after his death". Charming.
Grisly as the scenario is, the film's most lively moments arrive via a brief passage of pitch-black humour, as photographers attempt to pose the dead body for an ID photo – with predictably unsuccessful results.
Made up to look like a freshly drowned pilot, the newly monikered Acting Major William "Bill" Martin is packed on ice, bound for the Spanish coast.
As Fleming would later put it: you only live twice.
In order to tease this out to feature length, Madden and screenwriter Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), adapting the book by historian Ben Macintyre, fashion a tale of mild dramatic intrigue, with details of the characters' personal lives supplying emotional texture while the fate of the military operation hangs in the balance. (Seven-decade-old spoiler alert: it was a success.)
There's some enjoyable attention to detail in the elaborate fabrication of the pilot's identity, with a running gag about the overripe dialogue in the soldier's fake letters that plays off the idea that everyone on the intelligence staff appears to be writing a spy novel.
"My God, who isn't writing a novel?" says an exasperated Montagu, after yet another spook declares his intention to turn his exploits into fiction.
And that's even before we get to Fleming, for whom the movie at times resembles an origin story: a visit to the intelligence department's 'Q' branch, for example, sees the future Bond scribe marvelling at a military issue wristwatch equipped with a miniature buzz-saw – catnip for 007 fans familiar with the author's war history.
Operation Mincemeat is polite and polished stuff, content to stick to a predictable narrative and let history's stranger-than-fiction details supply the personality. Madden and cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov (Their Finest) shoot in anamorphic wide-screen for that old-school feel, delivering the kind of war movie your grandpa would love (that's a compliment, especially in an era where too many films resemble over-lit television shows).
The film is stacked with fascinating details, but Madden can't always overcome the predictability of a narrative that might have come alive in the hands of a more daring filmmaker. A romantic triangle between Macfadyen, Firth and Macdonald, meanwhile, doesn't catch fire despite the actors' charms – and Firth, reliable as ever, and Macdonald, a long-underrated trouper, are both very good here.
Given the premise, the movie could have been a little more strange, even funny: in one scene, a British officer mentions German General Jodl – pronounced "yodel" – and the moment practically begs for a cameo by Mel Brooks in full Sound of Music regalia.
Comic treatment of the material isn't unprecedented either: back in the 50s, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe's BBC radio troupe The Goon Show staged a parodic account of Operation Mincemeat in The Man Who Never Was, based on the book of the same name that also inspired the 1956 movie version (that film's deadpan line, "Every body belongs to somebody," goes unmatched here).
If Operation Mincemeat was already grist for the satirical mill in 1953, less than a decade after the war, it begs the reasonable question as to why this straightforward adaptation needs to exist at all, all these years later.
The answer, of course, is obvious. Movies about quirky, feel-good episodes or stirring, patriotic victories in Britain's past are uncomplicated by the nation's more chequered 20th-century history, not to mention its Brexit-addled present; they're perfect for aging audiences who don't want to feel challenged or uncomfortable in the cinema.
The fact that these audiences are now baby boomers looking back to their parents' stories of unambiguous heroism points to a curious retreat into familiarity. Maybe this is how nostalgia wins.
Operation Mincemeat is in cinemas now.