It’s not exactly the best of movie titles, but it is the story of one of the most audacious – and perhaps most implausible – plots to throw the Germans off-course in World War II. In 1943, Operation Mincemeat was designed to persuade the enemy that Allied troops would be invading Greece: the truth was they were headed for Sicily. And their means of persuasion was a corpse washed up on a Spanish beach, with a briefcase full of what looked like confidential papers. The thinking behind the plan’s name isn’t too much of a stretch.
John Madden’s (Miss Sloane, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel etc) Operation Mincemeat leaves us in no doubt that the idea was bonkers both on paper and in reality. But so many other WWII plans looked doomed to failure yet somehow worked, despite what looked like insurmountable odds. This one was headed by two intelligence officers, Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew McFadyen), with a small, basement bound team who put together and executed the plan, with help from an overseas network of agents, and then waited to see if it worked. History tells us the actual outcome, it’s currently getting the musical treatment on the London stage and the 1956 film, The Man Who Never Was, told much the same story. What’s left to say?
Surprisingly, quite a lot – too much, in fact, because there are times when it’s almost bursting at the seams with plot and the strain shows. Some of them work: the meticulous planning and small details that go into creating an identity for the dead man is engaging, sometimes funny, and the politics that go into making the plan happen are fascinating, especially when personal interest trumps national. But others don’t: the execution of the scheme is less absorbing, sacrificing genuine tension for something that looks like it’s lifted out of numerous other war movies, while the possibility of Montagu’s brother (Mark Gatiss) being a communist sympathiser is unconvincing. And Madden can’t resist a romance which echoes one of his earlier outings, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. It’s a distraction.
But placing one of the lesser members of the team in the spotlight gives it a fresh and slyly humorous angle. Montagu’s assistant is one Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn) – yes, the Ian Fleming who created the world’s best known spy was genuinely one of the team – and his habit of tapping away on his typewriter gives the film its narrator, pointing towards the origins of his source material for his future output. Penelope Wilton’s formidably efficient intel officer is clearly a forerunner of Moneypenny, while there are hints of M in Jason Isaacs‘ manipulative Commanding Officer. And, even when having Fleming as the narrator starts to feel stretched towards the end, the wry smile on his face – and ours – is ever-present.
With a cast that reads like a who’s who of British acting, both established and up-coming, there’s some attractive performances, particularly the Firth/McFadyen double act, two contrasting men who struggle to separate their personal issues from the job, and a handful of appearances from Simon Russell Beale, whose Churchill is prosthetic-free and all the better for it. Its shortcomings and old fashioned storytelling distract from the positives but thankfully don’t overshadow them completely. It’s still a pleasing mix of espionage and history that’s hard to resist. Despite that title.
Thriller, War | Cert: 12A | UK cinemas on 15 April 2022 | Warner Brothers | Dir. John Madden | Colin Firth, Matthew McFadyen, Penelope Wilton, Kelly Macdonald, Jason Isaacs, Johnny Flynn, Mark Gatiss, Alex Jennings, Simon Russell Beale.