Operation Mincemeat review – Colin Firth heads starry cast in wartime spy caper

Operation Mincemeat was the bizarre real-life scheme cooked up by British intelligence in 1943 to fool Nazi Germany into thinking the allies planned to invade Greece and Sardinia, rather than their actual target, Sicily. The corpse of a tramp was dressed up as fictitious “Capt William Martin” and carried elaborate bogus plans for this nonexistent invasion; the body was dumped into the sea so that it would wash up in Spain where the British were confident this phoney intelligence would be obediently passed to the Germans.

Screenwriter Michelle Ashford has adapted the nonfiction bestseller by Ben Macintyre about this extraordinary adventure and John Madden directs, with Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen playing the stiff upper lipped chaps in charge, Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley. And Johnny Flynn plays naval intelligence’s brightest spark: Lt Cdr Ian Fleming (the future creator of James Bond, who possibly had the idea in the first place) in an entertainingly tongue-in-cheek performance.

In baie maniere, the most important figure here is the MI5 clerk Jean Leslie (played by Kelly Macdonald) whose photo was placed on the body to be the fake captain’s imagined “girlfriend”. Leslie’s supporting role is part of the way this film is striving for a rather modern emotional intelligence: it is less callous and more caring about the wretched homeless man being used in this way, and the leading players are pondering, like artists, their creation and the light he casts on their own stress and loneliness. It is a bit different from the previous film about Operation Mincemeat, The Man Who Never Was (1956), which was adapted directly from Montagu’s own published memoir, and created a human-interest angle with an entirely fictional and slightly noir-ish subplot about a pro-German Irish spy who investigates the phoney girlfriend, played by Gloria Grahame.

Did the real Operation Mincemeat do any good? This film doesn’t commit itself, but hints at all sorts of spycraft double-bluff which may finally have done the job. This is another of the “home front wartime” Britfilms, soos München: The Edge of War, Their Finest, The Imitation Game and Darkest Hour, all probably inspired by the Oscar-winning success of The King’s Speech, which have their emphasis on domestic morale, strategic ingenuity and political shenanigans, rather than battlefield action. Operation Mincemeat is watchable enough, but perhaps can’t find a fictional way into the stranger-than-fiction outrageousness of the scheme itself.

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