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operation mincemeat review
In 1943 British Intelligence conceives an ingenious plot to deceive the Nazis.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: John Madden

Starring: Colin Firth, Kelly MacDonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Penelope Wilton, Johnny Flynn, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs

operation mincemeat poster

Key to the allied forces' success in World War II was a figure named Major William Martin. What's extraordinary about Martin's role is that he managed to help turn the tide of the war without having ever existed. Playing a similarly key role was a man named Glyndwr Michael. What's extraordinary about Michael's role is that he helped turn the tide of the war while being very dead. Martin and Michael were in fact the same man, the latter's corpse adopting the fictitious guise of the former. Weeks after his death at home in Britain, Michael found himself at the centre of one of the most fascinating stories to emerge from the war, that of Operation Mincemeat.

The story previously inspired the 1956 film The Man Who Never Was, but at that time the real identity of Martin was unknown. Now director John Madden's Operation Mincemeat gives Michael his cinematic dues.

operation mincemeat review

It's 1943 and the allies are plotting an assault on Sicily with the intent of retaking Europe by advancing through Italy. The idea seems so obvious that they're sure the Nazis will be waiting for them, and so a plot is set in motion to fool the Germans into believing they intend to storm Greece rather than Sicily.

This is where the fresh corpse of Michael comes in. Led by Intelligence officer Ewan Montagu (Colin Firth), the top secret Operation Mincemeat (renamed from the on the nose "Operation Trojan Horse") is set in motion. Michael's lifeless body becomes Major William Martin, and a fake identity is supplemented by filling his pockets with "wallet litter," including a love letter from his wife and a secret document outlining the fake plot to invade Greece. The plan is to have Michael's body wash ashore in Spain, where the documents on his person will no doubt end up in the hands of the Nazis due to the sympathetic Franco regime.

operation mincemeat review

Madden and screenwriter Michelle Ashford have constructed a very old-fashioned war movie of the sort best viewed on a Sunday afternoon with a belly full of roast beef and your Dad nodding in and out of sleep on the couch beside you. The cast is largely filled with British actors who have a timeless quality. While some actors have a decidedly modern appeal, Firth has the look of a man who could have been a star of British cinema at any point in the last hundred years. Over the course of his career he's found himself typecast as the sensitive hunk, and to a degree that's how his Montagu is portrayed, with the film adding a subplot concerning his will-they-won't-they relationship with MI5 clerk Jean Leslie (Kelly MacDonald). Whether they'll lock their stiff upper lips together becomes as much a narrative drive as the success of the eponymous operation. MacDonald and Firth both possess such a natural charm that this extraneous subplot never proves a distraction from the main plot.

And that main plot is indeed fascinating, though you may find yourself wishing it had been undertaken by a more visually gifted filmmaker than Madden, a director synonymous with a certain type of middle of the road British cinema. On the other hand, having a director who stands back and puts his cast front and centre means we get to enjoy the contributions of some great British character actors including Simon Russell Beale as Churchill, Penelope Wilton as an MI5 section head, Jason Isaacs as a stuffy Admiral, and most fun of all, Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley, who finds himself cucked by Firth's Montagu in a rather odd subplot.

operation mincemeat review

James Bond fans will find much to enjoy with Johnny Flynn playing a young Ian Fleming, then a Naval intelligence officer. We even get a visit to the subterranean HQ of Q Branch, where a Desmond Llewellyn lookalike introduces Fleming to a watch that doubles as a buzzsaw, along with various lines about Fleming hammering out a "spy story" on his typewriter.

As a depiction of one of the war's most intriguing operations, Madden's film lacks the oomph factor that a Christopher Nolan might have brought, but it succeeds as a story of a group of smart people getting together to outwit an imposing enemy, with a formidable cast bringing these unsung heroes to life, or indeed death.

Operation Mincemeat
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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