If there’s one genre of movies that seems like it will never die, it’s World War II. Even more than 80 years past the start of that generation-defining war, filmmakers continue to be fascinated by its wide variety of stories. The latest to try its hand at enticing moviegoers is the British film Operation Mincemeat.
Unlike many other WWII films, this one takes place mostly behind the scenes instead of on the battlefield. British Naval intelligence officer Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) leads a team that’s been charged with coming up with a plan to deceive the Nazis into thinking the Allies will invade Greece instead of Sicily. Joined by fellow intelligence officer Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfayden), MI5 clerk Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), and Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), among others, the group comes up with an audacious idea of dressing up a corpse in a military uniform, putting fake papers inside the uniform, and literally floating him into German hands.
Not everyone is on board with the scheme, most notably Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), who’s keen to put the kibosh on it from the get-go. Also threatening to upend the preparations is an unexpected romantic triangle between Montagu, whose wife and children are safe in the United States; Cholmondley, a lonely bachelor who lives with his mother; and Leslie, who allows herself to fall for Montagu knowing full well that he is spoken for.
Directed by John Madden and written by Michelle Ashford, the film plays out as part military, part spy, and part morality story. The group understands that their plan has to be foolproof, and so they brainstorm the fake soldier’s life down to the most minute details. The scenes of them figuring out this part of the assignment serve two purposes: To show how much went into making the plan work, and to show how close the various members of the group are becoming.
It’s unusual for this kind of film to spend as much time on romantic entanglements as this one does, but things become a bit clearer when you realize that the person popping up occasionally with narration is the character of Fleming, who would go on to a successful career as the writer of spy novels featuring one James Bond. While the triangle depicted is much more chaste and down-to-earth than anything that Bond would be involved with, you can see the filmmakers tipping their hat to the stories Fleming wrote.
Still, the film does drag a bit at times due to the sheer amount of talking in it. The story the filmmakers are telling naturally contains little action, and so it’s replaced with exposition explaining the action that will take place in the future instead of showing it. A lot of it works, but there are times that they get a little too bogged down in the details.
Firth has been one of the go-to actors for upstanding and proper English characters for quite some time, and he proves here yet again why that’s the case. His earnestness and almost literal stiff upper lip make him a natural for roles like this. Macfayden is his equal acting wise, but at least he gets to play with more emotional nuance. Macdonald, as she often has been in her career, is the heart of the film, giving her character a quiet strength that elevates both her part and the story as a whole.
Operation Mincemeat is one of those World War II stories that’s notable for its daring, although the thrill of trying to pull it off doesn’t always come through on screen. It’s a serviceable film with some solid acting, but it won’t be added to the pantheon of great WWII movies.
Operation Mincemeat is now streaming on Netflix.