No cloaks or daggers required. No bloodshed. No code to crack. But all kinds of difficulties to overcome. Find a dead man with fluid in his lungs, to mimic the effects of drowning. Compiling various documents to back up his fabricated identity, should the Germans investigate. Dealing with various time pressures – everything from tides (to make sure the body reaches the shore) to body decay (getting a suitable corpse wasn’t the only issue, approaching one close enough to when the operation would be performed was another). And there was the biggest deadline of all: the expected date of the landing in Sicily.
It’s an amazing story – outlandish genius – especially since it actually happened. This is definitely a case where, yes, truth is stranger than fiction. It’s also more exciting. Sadly, that brings us to the most absurd thing about “Operation Mincemeat”: that such remarkable material could make such a painstaking film. A beautiful cast – Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Penelope Wilton – do their best for the stiff upper lip. It’s not good enough.
There was a 1956 film about the operation, “The Man Who Never Was”. Ronald Neame directed. John Madden, who is best known for “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) and the two films “Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011, 2015), directed this one. You might wonder if this was the best preparation to do what is, in effect, a spying procedure. You would be right.
Firth plays Ewen Montagu, the naval officer in charge of the plan. Firth is starting to look a bit bloated, which wouldn’t be as noticeable if he weren’t almost 20 years older than the current Montagu. Mcfadyen plays the officer who comes up with the plan, Charles Cholmondeley. A real tedious budget. Cholmondeley is about as far as you can get from, say, Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Yes, Fleming (Johnny Flynn) is part of the intelligence group.
Fleming isn’t the only famous name at your fingertips. Winston Churchill manages to stir his cigar in a few scenes. Having the PM on hand in a film set in wartime London has become pretty much de rigueur – like Hitchcock making an appearance in his films. There is a long, and mostly dubious, Churchills screen line. Do you remember how Gary Oldman won an Oscar for playing him in “Darkest Hour” (2017) or Rod Taylor’s rather funny bit in “Inglorious Basterds” (2011)? Better if you don’t remember Simon Russell Beale’s performance here.
Cholmondeley and Montagu form a sort of romantic triangle – only sort of, remember those stiff upper lips – with a war widow who works as a secretary in the office (Macdonald). The non-triangular triangle becomes a non-quadrilateral quadrilateral when a lone GI briefly appears on stage. The romantic angle is an example of how the story gets staged.
Another is a subplot involving Montagu’s brother possibly being a Soviet spy. It’s historically accurate, but the purposes for which it is intended here – a bit of extortion, an act of personal betrayal – are not. The red brother is a red herring. The instigator of the subplot is the Chief of Naval Intelligence. Even if you are a WWII enthusiast, its name is unfamiliar to you. The name of the actor who plays him, Jason Isaacs, probably isn’t either. But Isaac’s face is. Even in an admiral’s uniform and a military haircut, the resemblance to Lucius Malfoy remains.
Directed by John Madden. Written by Michelle Ashford; based on the book by Ben Macintyre. With Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald. Streaming on Netflix. 127 minutes. PG-13 (coarse language, some sexual content, brief wartime violence, disturbing images, smoking). In English and Spanish, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be contacted at [email protected]