Around halfway through “Operation Mincemeat” — a busy yet somewhat rousing WWII spy thriller based on the English military scheme of the same name — I began to appreciate why this might be John Madden’s best movie since “Shakespeare in Love”: It’s a story about a bunch of British men (and a smattering of British women) who are trying to stage an elaborate show in the face of escalating crises. Except this time, their audience isn’t the Queen of England, a crowd of rowdy peasants, and a pissed-off Colin Firth. This time, their audience is the Nazi intelligence network, and their lead actor is a pissed-off Colin Firth. And unlike “Shakespeare in Love,” much of this story is actually true. How embarrassing for Hitler.
Here’s the gist of it: Desperate to turn the tide of the war, yet painfully aware that German moles were allowing the Nazis to anticipate their every move, two members of the British intelligence service cooked up a ridiculous plan to misdirect their enemy. It was an idea straight out of the “Weekend at Bernie’s” school of spycraft.
Step one was to find an anonymous corpse (some mincemeat, if you will). Step two was to invent a character for it — the fictitious Captain (Acting Major) William Martin — complete with a detailed and heartbreakingly romantic backstory. Step three was to fill the captain’s jacket pocket with confidential documents that suggested the Allies were intending to invade Greece and Sardinia, and step four was to let the body wash ashore off the coast of Spain, where news of its arrival was sure to spread throughout the Abwehr. If all went well, the Allies would find their actual target — Sicily — sitting relatively unguarded, and would be able to launch the Italian Campaign from there. It was like putting a message in a bottle that said “please let us win the war,” and hoping that it would miraculously wash up at Hitler’s feet 1,000 miles away.
Did Operation Mincemeat work? Madden’s film offers a better answer to that question than history ever has. Nevertheless, this spirited piece of light entertainment also makes clear that its path from crackpot idea to galaxy brain military ruse was filled with as many divots and detours as the evolution from “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” to Shakespeare’s greatest tale of woe. And while “Operation Mincemeat” is as breezy as you might expect from such a beach read of a dad movie — which is narrated by Johnny Flynn as a young Ian Fleming, so that its target audience doesn’t get put off by the star-crossed love story that forms in the margins of Michelle Ashford’s script — whatever smidgeon of weight it accrues before the end can be traced back to the personal tragedies it kicks up along the way.
The action begins in the early days of 1943, as upper-crust barrister Ewen Montagu (Firth) — who hasn’t tried a case in three years — finally drops the façade and commits to his work as a Naval intelligence officer. Now that his wife and children are fleeing to America (itself a cover story for a rocky marriage), there will be less pressure to keep up appearances. There will also be more reason for Ewen to be wary of his black sheep of a brother, a former Communist firestarter, but that drama won’t rear its head until later in this story of strained loyalties large and small.
Ewen’s partner in crime, on the other hand, believes himself to be the failson of his family. Despite being a relatively high-ranking MI5 agent, Charles Cholmondeley (“Succession” star Matthew Macfadyen, who continues to find success in his exquisite portrayals of failing upwards) still thinks of himself as a sad clown with large feet and bad eyes in the shadow of his war hero brother. Charles can hardly simper his way through a meeting with Churchill (Simon Russell Beale) without emitting all sorts of “the wrong kid died!” energy.
He and Ewen need a win for themselves almost as badly as they need a win for their country, but their furtive camaraderie is soon threatened by the zero-sum love triangle that takes shape when both men swoon — or whatever you call it when monastically repressed middle-aged British spies twitch their stiff upper lips with lust — over the secretary who agrees to pose as the late Capt. Martin’s one true love. An excellent Kelly Macdonald anchors the cast as the willful but wanting Jean Leslie, her performance allowing Ewen, Christopher, and the rest of their semi-informed collaborators to see “Martin’s” corpse as a vessel for all of the emotions they’ve been forced to suppress during the war. And those are the only emotions that “Operation Mincemeat” reliably provokes.
“In any story,” Fleming’s crusty narration intones, “there is that which is seen, and that which is hidden. This is especially true in stories of war.” The implication is that many of the most crucial battles of WWII were fought in the shadows, but “Operation Mincemeat” is most compelling when it takes things a step further and focuses its attention on the wars that people fought within themselves.
The film is primarily interested in the nitty-gritty of planning the ruse; in Ewen and Christopher finding the right corpse, drowning it in the perfect spot, weathering the notes in its jacket pocket so that the coded information they contain seems like an unforced error and not a wacky gambit, etc. Much of this stuff is spryly written and conveyed at a steady pace, even if the characters never miss an opportunity to remind us of the score, resulting in dozens of needless lines such as “Every piece of intelligence says the Nazis are waiting for us in Greece, and every piece of intelligence may be part of the greatest deception the Nazis have ever played.” It’s never a good sign when a spy thriller can’t trust audiences to accept its stakes.
Worse is how “Operation Mincemeat” slices its story into smaller and smaller bits as it goes along, frustrating the film’s more nuanced character work (and disempowering the rich performances behind it). For something that unfolds like a heist movie about the laundering of misinformation, the endless clickety-clack of typewriters simply isn’t able to generate the kind of heart-in-your-throat suspense it needs to keep the plot kicking along.
On the contrary, the movie’s frustratingly brief asides into the private lives of its characters prove far more gripping. The furtive romantic flirtation between Ewen and Jean — often filtered through the love story they invent for their decoy corpse — offers a tension that’s lacking from the results of the operation itself. Even the dynamic between Ewen and Christopher, which is complicated by its own degree of distrust, hints at the far richer drama that’s percolating just below the surface of a thriller that’s too seduced by the absurdities of its own true story.
Whatever their suspicions, Ewen and Christopher obviously both want Britain to win the war; it’s their uncertain loyalties to each other, and their even more uncertain loyalties to their own families, that lead to the real subterfuge. When “Operation Mincemeat” slows down enough to see into those shadows — when the film slows down enough to leverage the fictions its characters invent for the Nazis against the ones they invent for themselves — it finds a hidden war that’s worth fighting to the end.
“Operation Mincemeat” is now streaming on Netflix.