Operation Mincemeat, a richly engaging World War II spy drama from director John Madden, opens with voiceover narration which asserts that a good story contains that which is seen, and also that which is hidden. Over the course of two-plus hours, the film then proceeds to both illustrate that axiom and excavate its deeper truths.
Based on fascinatingly improbable real-life events, the film has enough cloak-and-dagger intrigue and period detail to satisfy the type of hardcore sub-genre enthusiasts who made the exhaustive, 39-volume Time Life Books series on World War II a perennial Father’s Day gift. But it’s also shot through with a humanizing sense of uncertainty, moral complication, and even wistfulness about the manner in which this work weighs upon its practitioners, for an altogether rewarding experience even for those viewers who traditionally eschew wartime dramas.
In early 1943, the Allied forces weigh a plan to splinter Axis power and break Adolf Hitler’s grip on occupied Europe, they struggle with a formidable challenge. A frontal assault on Sicily makes the most sense, but it is also the most obvious. Aiming to mitigate casualties, the “Twenty Committee,” a special British interdepartmental intelligence team, undertakes a disinformation campaign. Their aim is to make Germany and Italy believe that the Allied point-of-attack is actually Greece, and redirect some of their forces accordingly.
As part of this strategy, intelligence officers Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) seize upon a throwaway detail in an old war memo credited to their superior, Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), and championed by outside-of -the-box thinker and aspiring novelist Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn). The idea, self-admittedly cribbed from Basil Thomson’s The Milliner’s Hatis to plant misleading military documents on a dead soldier’s body in order to fool the Nazis.
Despite the fact that Godfrey doesn’t have much faith in the ruse, the aforementioned pair is tasked with implementing it and, abetted by Fleming, they set about breathing life into the plan. Ewen and Charles start by obtaining the body of a recently deceased homeless man, then construct an elaborate personal history for the newly named Captain William Martin. Months of meticulous work culminate with his placement of him off the coast of Huelva in southern Spain, an ideal spot for a variety of reasons. From there, an entirely separate game unfolds, trying to make certain the corresponding phony documents find their way into the hands of German agents.
All this espionage plotting and narrative density recall Firth’s 2011 Cold War-era spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. like that film, Operation Mincemeat is a well-crafted project which invites audiences to sink into the enveloping procedural crevasses of its story. Based on the same-titled book by Ben Macintyre and adapted for the screen by Michelle Ashford, the script is a marvel of condensed structure, artfully channeling bureaucratic and political machinations through compelling characters. More importantly, though, there’s a certain elegiac quality that hangs over the entire movie without overshadowing or suffocating its thriller elements.
The basic story here (previously adapted in 1956’s The Man Who Never Was, starring Clifton Webb, as well as a recent stage show) would be easy to sell on merely its more outlandish elements and its many feints. But in the hands of Ashford, the creator of Masters of Sex and also Emmy-nominated for The Pacificit becomes something more deeply considered.
The character of Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), an MI5 clerk who provides a sweetheart photograph for the fictitious Martin and then uses that to become more involved in the plot, at first seems a questionable or distracting inclusion to an already unlikely story. Ashford, however, develops Leslie in order to plumb all of the surrounding characters with greater insight. She establishes a sort of love triangle between Ewen, Jean, and Charles, creating tension without ever yielding to the consumption that would really qualify the movie as a romantic drama. Ewen, a Jew whose family has been sent off to America, develops a strong bond with the widowed Jean, who returns the depth of her feelings. The somewhat hapless Charles, meanwhile, working in secret and living with a mother who pines for his war hero brother, nurses an unrequited crush on Jean. The way in which these characters go about collectively building this backstory of “Bill and Pam,” waxing romantic about a wholly constructed love affair, deepens their characterizations in an affecting manner that intensifies the story overall.
Ashford also doesn’t shy away from the story’s inherent absurdity, despite the gravity of its stakes. She allows for gallows humor, taking special delight in concocting a sequence in which Godfrey tortures his cartoons for a letter-perfect rewrite on staid military correspondence. She also folds in a number of Easter eggs (Fleming is rumored to have actually written part of Godfrey’s initial, so-called “Trout Memo”) which will elicit amused smiles from James Bond fans.
British director Madden remains best known Stateside for helming the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love. But despite the filmography studded with plenty of movies of the sort which are most stereotypically associated with English filmmakers, he also knows his way around both this specific time and place (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) and political thrillers more generally (The Debt). Working in lockstep fashion with cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov and editor Victoria Boydell, Madden crafts an unassuming, attractive-looking film which feels at once tidy and expansive, manicured and propulsive. His assurance and deft touch with the film’s counterintelligence plotting—which comes to a head in a third act featuring double or sometimes triple agents—are atypical among peers, many of whom would feel the need to adopt a more aggressive visual style.
The movie’s performances also fit together quite appealingly. Isaacs’ unwelcoming, perturbed demeanor seems to feed perfectly into Firth’s buttoned-up straightforwardness, giving Godfrey’s suspicion that Ewen’s eccentric, Communist-sympathizing younger brother Ivor (Mark Gatiss) is a Russian spy a layer of parallel intrigue. Macfadyen imbues Charles with a poignant sadness, while Macdonald similarly conveys an expanse of tangled, private feelings. Together, this core trio provides Operation Mincemeat with a sense of enlivened history, and show that a strong sense of duty need not be a shiny, uncomplicated thing—that it can be weighted with all types of ambiguities, differently colored motivations and, yes, regrets.