Wars have always been full of stories that are so fantastical, they can only be true. The real story behind Netflix’s new war drama Operation Mincemeat is definitely one of those tales. Directed by John Madden, the film brings to life the titular sabotage operation by the British during World War II from the perspective of those in the Home Office planning it.
Operation Mincemeat was part of the larger Operation Barclay and designed to give the Axis powers the wrong idea about where the Allied forces would be invading. The British intelligence used the body of a homeless man named Glyndwr Michael, who had died of rat poisoning, to pose as a Royal Marines officer named Captain William Martin. They placed personal items on the body to make their invented character seem more authentic, along with correspondence between British generals with plans to invade Greece and Sardinia. The Brits allowed the body to wash up on Spanish shores, knowing that despite the country’s neutral stance in the war, they would allow the information to fall into German hands. The operation convinced the Germans and thus, the 1943 invasion of Sicily was a success.
Based on Ben Macintyre’s book, Michelle Ashford’s screenplay centers around the planning of this deception in the British home office from the choosing of the corpse to the writing of the letters that would be placed on his person. The office is populated with a who’s who of British period dramas from Simon Russell Beale’s rather convincing Winston Churchill to Penelope Wilton’s no-nonsense head of the secretarial unit. Jason Isaacs appears as a very stern John Godfrey, while Johnny Flynn’s Ian Fleming narrates the film. (And yes, there are several nods to the James Bond books that he would later pen.)
Most of the film is centered around the intelligence officers played by two different Darcys: Colin Firth (of the 1995 BBC production) and Matthew Macfadyen (of the 2005 Joe Wright film). Macfadyen’s Charles Cholmondeley is “a flightless bird,” a grounded Airforce pilot dealing with the shadow cast on him by his deceased war hero brother. Macfadyen excels in this sort of uptight, reserved role and continually gives the idea that there are hundreds of emotions bubbling under the surface.
Meanwhile, Colin Firth’s Ewen Montagu is a bit more self-assured, despite the issues he’s having at home. While the film is largely made up of meetings and conversations, with talents like these, it remains engaging. The scenes between Macfadyen and Firth are particularly fun to watch – and not only to see two Darcys interact.
Though this is a war film, its softer moments make it clear why Madden – who previously directed Shakespeare in Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – took on the project. A large focus is on the creation of the personal details to fledge out the fictional officer’s life and in particular his imagined romance with a woman they name Pam. Secretary Jean Leslie (played by Kelly Macdonald) offers up her photograph to go with William Martin’s documents and gets pulled into the planning. While watching the trio imagine a tragic romance for Bill and Pam, it’s almost possible for both them and us to forget the war waging nearby.
Unfortunately, the film wastes a lot of its two hour runtime on an unnecessary love triangle between Ewen, Jean, and Charles. It’s a plot point that’s tedious, rather than engaging and takes away from the more interesting aspects of the story being told. The film would have been better off without the imagined romance as a way to create tension between Ewen and Charles, or even letting the romance occur between Jean and Charles without any involvement from Ewen. This is the epitome of a film in which the historically accurate parts are more interesting than the invented ones.
Even with that flaw, it’s still a beautifully put-together British period drama with lovely scenery, sets, and costumes. Thomas Newman’s score is rousing and perfectly suited to the material. While no one in the cast gives a remarkable or surprising performance, they all deliver exactly the level of solid performance that you would expect from them. Though he only has a few scenes, Beale makes a worthy addition to the plethora of Churchill performances. Macfadyen is the standout of the cast, though perhaps because his character has the most emotional depth.
Operation Mincemeat may not reinvent the war drama, but it does succeed in telling an incredibly strange and fascinating true story that audiences may not be aware of. Despite the tension created as the officers and secretaries wait to find out if their ruse worked and helped save lives during the British invasion of Sicily, it’s mostly a low-stress, feel-good film. Madden has made a great addition to the collection of British period dramas that are cozy rainy day watches with a reliable cast that will keep you and your parents happy.
Operation Mincemeat is currently in limited release in theaters and hits Netflix May 11.
Photo: Giles Keyte