Directed by John Madden | Written by Michelle Ashford, based on a book by Ben Macintyre | 128 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | Netflix
Sometimes a genre picture, otherwise conventional in many ways, can excel just via its commitment to the material, stylish choices in the direction, and a collection of unimpeachable performances. That’s what’s happened here with Operation Mincemeat. In one way it’s the model of the tweedy British war picture, a variation on movies that have been made off and on for 75 years. Yet, in another it’s a stirring potboiler, hitting most of its targets telling a fascinating true-to-life tale.
The movie focuses on a small team of basement-dwelling spies who, in 1943, came up with false intelligence to deceive the Nazis about the true plans of the Allied forces to invade Sicily. Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) are the two characters at its core.
Montagu’s managing a marriage strained by his duty. The prospect of a Nazi invasion sends his Jewish wife (Hattie Morahan) and the kids to America. He’s also got a mysterious brother, Ivor (Mark Gatiss, used to playing a mysterious brother on Sherlock), whose loyalties are unclear. And Cholmondeley’s under pressure from his mother to reclaim the body of his war hero brother from India.
Between them is Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald),who becomes essential to the plan — which is to drop a body into the water off the Spanish coast, a corpse in possession of personal effects and confidential, fake documents, which they hope will be sent to Berlin to lure the Nazis away from Sicily.
Also on the team is Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton, familiar to any fan of Downton) and future James Bond 007 creator, Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn). Above their pay grade is Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs at his most serpentine) and, of course, Winston Churchill (Simon Russell Beale).
It’s hard to go wrong with a cast this sterling, and they’re never less than watchable. The best parts of this, right through the first and second acts, is how the team constructs the fiction of Major William Martin, from all the details of his past to his love affair with a woman named Pam to his military service, all around a corpse they secure who died in the London streets. Each character commits to the assembly of this deception. Every element reveals something about the contributor.
It’s no mistake the film shows British military intelligence was filled with writers, they’re all finding their way through the horror of war by telling stories that reflect their own experience.
What’s a real surprise here is the script manages to work in a lot of humour, done with a light touch so to not overwhelm the dramatic tone. The lovely, plaintive score, the solid pace and editing, a convincing recreation of time and place, and the deliberate building of suspense, it all works.
If there are a couple of missteps in the third act — a double agent revealed who should’ve been seeded better, and the true nature of Ivor dangled but unfortunately never confirmed — it’s nowhere near enough to sink this stalwart and entertaining vessel.