'Operation Mincemeat' review: a gripping, stranger-than-fiction true war drama

Colin Firth leads this taut thriller based on a jaw-dropping plan set during the Second World War

Matthew Macfadyen, Colin Firth and Johnny Flynn in 'Operation Mincemeat'. Photo: Netflix
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A taut Second World War drama, Operation Mincemeat is based on a real series of events that, at first glance, might seem fanciful.

'Operation Mincemeat'

Director: John Madden

Cast: Colin Firth, Matthew Macfayden, Kelly Macdonald and Penelope Wilton

Rating: 4/5

Back in 1943, the Allies undertook a jaw-dropping plan to defeat the Nazi forces, one that would prove be the turning point towards victory in Europe. That it relied on a barely credible ploy that many would shoot down before realising they had few other options just adds to the film’s remarkable, stranger-than-fiction quality.

When the film opens, British intelligence is scheming to invade Sicily, but the only way of achieving this is to fool German officials into believing that the Allies are planning on using an entirely different gateway into Europe — Greece and Sardinia. To do this, a plan is hatched that feels straight out of a wartime spy novel: a corpse will be requisitioned, dressed in British military uniform, equipped with falsified documents that hint at the Greek plot, and left in shallow waters off the coast of Spain.

Putting this Trojan horse into operation are Naval Intelligence officer Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and MI5’s Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen), a former RAF pilot. While Churchill (Simon Russell Beale) greenlights the plan in spite of its sheer lunacy, they aren’t exactly backed by enthusiastic support — notably, sceptical Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), the head of British Naval Intelligence (despite, in reality, being someone who’d contemplated the idea years earlier).

Ensconced in a basement office in Whitehall, they undertake ‘Operation Mincemeat’, a name almost as daft as the plan itself. It almost sounds like a sketch from the Monty Python team, although director John Madden never lets its bizarre nature overshadow the film. He treats it just as the characters do — with sobriety. And so Montagu and Cholmondeley set about overseeing the minutia of their plan, as they create the fictitious Naval courier, Major William Martin, the dead man left to wash up on the Spanish shore.

Kelly Macdonald as Jean Leslie and Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley in 'Operation Mincemeat'. Photo: Netflix

One of the more questionable aspects of the scheme sees them commandeer the body of a recently deceased tramp, but the script by Michelle Ashford (based on the non-fiction bestseller by Ben Macintyre) ensures that this is not treated lightly. Fascinatingly, the film takes great delight in the level of detail the plan requires. Like the way an MI5 clerk (Trainspotting’s Kelly Macdonald) becomes Martin’s imagined lady friend, her photo being placed on his person. No stone is left unturned, even when the Spanish authorities initially fail to deliver the phoney information to the Germans, as expected.

While Montagu wrote a book about his adventures, The Man Who Never Was — which became a 1956 film, starring Clifton Webb and Gloria Grahame – Operation Mincemeat takes a slightly different tack. The narrator is Godfrey’s assistant — one Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn). Some nine years before he’d publish his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, Lt Cdr Fleming is the ideal choice to convey the story to viewers. While he’s seen composing at his typewriter, the joke is that just about everyone in MI5 is working on a spy novel in their spare time.

Johnny Flynn plays Ian Fleming in the film. Photo: Netflix

Madden, the British director still best known for his Oscar-friendly films Mrs Brown and Shakespeare in Love, is a fine choice to helm Operation Mincemeat. He’s a capable and assured director with experience in the genre — his 2010 film The Debt, starring Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren explored a plot that saw Mossad agents taking down a Nazi war criminal. Here, he manages to conjure up reams of tension — an impressive feat for a film that is largely set in smoke-filled war rooms, with upper-class men staring at maps of Europe.

As Operation Mincemeat unfolds, it becomes as much a character study of the pivotal personnel as it does a Second World War thriller. Chief among them is Firth’s Montagu, who is first seen sending his Jewish wife Iris (Hattie Morahan) and their children to America, for fear the Germans may yet reach the UK. There is also a plotline — perhaps one too far, given everything else going on — involving the political allegiances of his brother Ivor (Mark Gatiss), and the compromising position it puts Firth’s character in.

What results is a very fine Second World War drama that unflinchingly details the ingenuity needed to win the war, the personal sacrifices that had to be made, and the amoral decisions that had to be navigated.

Led by splendid performances — particularly by Macfadyen, who is on a roll after his work in TV show Succession — it’s a gripping, old-fashioned adventure that’ll leave you astounded at the sheer nerve of it all.

Operation Mincemeat is out in UAE cinemas from May 5

Updated: May 04, 2022, 3:08 PM
'Operation Mincemeat'

Director: John Madden

Cast: Colin Firth, Matthew Macfayden, Kelly Macdonald and Penelope Wilton

Rating: 4/5

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