Operation Mincemeat – movie review

Director John Madden is a bit of an enigma. The Englishman is of course best known as the director of Shakespeare in Love. He’s also done some fine work in films like Proof (2005), The Debt (2010) and Miss Sloane (2016).  But he also has Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Killshot on his resume. His new film – his first in 5 years – Operation Mincemeat is a melange of the best and worst of the filmmaker.

This really should be a sure-fire winner. The true story of how a bunch of nerdy Brits outwitted the Germans in WWII is already fascinating. Throw in the fact it provided real-life inspiration for James Bond author Ian Fleming (who played a role in the operation) and you’ve got all the materials for a thrilling spy drama. But the script from Michelle Ashford (adapting Ben McIntyre’s book) meanders through the tale, at the same time shoe-horning in a rather aimless romance. The result is a film that somehow feels slow and rushed at the same time.

The film takes place over about the first half of 1943. Allied armies have seized North Africa and intend to open a front in Europe. The obvious target is Sicily, and the Germans have already figured that out. With the invasion locked in, time is running out for the Allies to avoid a slaughter in Sicily. Desperate measures are needed. Naval intelligence officer Ewan Montagu (Colin Firth) proposes a bold plan to his boss, Admiral Godfrey (Jason Isaacs). They’ll convince the Nazis the landing is headed for Greece, diverting resources from Sicily. But with the game all but up, they’ll need something especially convincing. Montagu proposes placing fake papers on a corpse and washing it up in neutral but fascist Spain, in the hopes they’ll be passed on to the Germans. With the backing of Churchill (Simon Russell Beale), the plan is approved.

Montagu entrusts his loyal (or is he?) lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) with pulling it all together. Faking the documents, making sure the uniform is correctly aged, having the right things in a wallet – no detail is overlooked. But they also need a corpse that can pass for a drowned man. Montagu’s family meanwhile have been sent to America – perhaps a blessing as his marriage is under strain. He shares the house with his brother Ivor (Mark Gatiss). But Ivor is himself the subject of a little spying thanks to his Communist leanings. Montgu however seems to be blissfully unaware. Things get even more complicated as Montagu finds a sympathetic ear in his smart assistant Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald).

Madden tries to keep track of all the moving parts but the pedestrian directorial style he adopts here makes that difficult. The light touches are gone, replaced by a dour perspective. I’m not sure why he made that choice, but it weighs the film down. And while the main plot concerning the diversionary operation is compelling, the film drags to a virtual standstill when it picks up the threads of the various sub-plots.

DOP Sebastian Blenkov (Miss Sloane) imbues the film with tones of gray, in keeping with the wartime setting. At times though the film looks a bit awkward, no doubt the result of having to shoot around contemporary landmarks in the London locations. Thomas Newman’s score is apposite without being particularly memorable.

The “name” British cast are uniformly excellent. Colin Firth leads them with some style as the damaged Montagu, but his co-stars more than keep up with him. Matthew Macfadyen and Kelly Macdonald in particular shine, but Jason Isaacs, Penelope Wilton, Paul Ritter and Will Keen (to name only a few) all contribute to a fine acting ensemble.

I’ve heard the story of Operation Mincemeat a few times, so I was very interested to see this film. While Madden ticks off the right boxes, this film felt less than the sum of its parts to me. It never really gelled into a cohesive whole. But if you’re interested in spying, history or quite chaste romance, this will be worth a look.

David Edwards

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