Review by C.J. Bunce
A British-led counter-intelligence operation calculated to deceive Nazi Germany during World War II that involved Allied coordination among the likes of Winston Churchill, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and British intelligence officer Ian Spelling sounds like the stuff of a suspense-thriller, right? That’s not quite what you get in this weekend’s direct-to Netflix war movie Operation Mincemeat. As genre movies go, count this spy movie as purely historical fiction, primarily a mix of the mundane steps of pulling off even the most unlikely–but true–adventures in international trickery with some romance thrown in for the legion of Colin Firth swooners. Detailing the plot to throw the Axis off the scent of Britain’s invasion and liberation of Sicily using a dead body with faked documents dropped off the coast of Spain, the movie lands in the same league as all the other 21st efforts to re-conjure World War II–its bland, sentimental account doesn’t match the drama of contemporary Hollywood of the 1940s. But if you like watching your favorite British genre actors chewing up the screen, it’s worth the time.
If the plot sounds familiar it’s because you may have seen the 1956 drama The Man Who Never Was starring three-time Oscar nominee Clifton Webb as the key character in the story, Ewen Montagu, who planned and carried out the ruse, and wrote the novel the original film was based upon. Oscar-winner Colin Firth steps into the lead role this time as a retired Bond type back to show his British loyalty and duty in time of war, joined by an impressive genre star cast including Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter series, Star Trek Discovery), Kelly Macdonald (Brave, Harry Potter series), Matthew Macfadyen (Ashes to Ashes, The Current War), Mark Gattis (Sherlock, Doctor Who), Mark Bonnar (Shetland, Doctor Who) at last in a big screen role as… a truck driver who looks like Errol Flynn, Penelope Wilton (Shaun of the Dead, Doctor Who), Rufus Wright (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Shetland, The Watcher in the Woods, Quantum of Solace), Hattie Morahan (The Bank Job, The Golden Compass, The Bletchley Circle, Enola Holmes), and Johnny Flynn (The Outfit, Emma.) as young Ian Fleming.
The screenplay for Operation Mincemeat is more a series of character studies than an attempt to highlight the oddity of the surprising facts of the account. The idea to throw the Axis off the scent of an agreed strike between the Brits and Americans on Sicily is a mix of ideas from intelligence officer Charles Cholmondeley (played by co-star Macfadyen) and intelligence officer (and pre-James Bond creator) Ian Spelling (Flynn). Firth’s Montagu steers the project with Admiral Godfrey (Isaacs), who has pitted Cholmondeley to spy on him, thinking Montagu’s brother (Gatiss) is a Russian agent, and Godfrey tries to trash the project directly to Churchill (Simon Russell Beale). Somehow, Churchill knows better.
Instead of a breathless unfolding of secrets and agents with shifting vantages and piled-on duplicity, the central focus of this film is introduced when Cholmondeley falls for Bletchley codebreaking department’s Jean Leslie (Macdonald), pulling her into the project when they need a woman’s photograph for the dead man’s pocket. Unfortunately for Cholmondeley, she and Firth’s Montagu set their sights on each other instead, despite his marriage. The mechanics of the spy work take a side seat to the building relationship between Montagu and Leslie, with Cholmondeley angsting about it all the way. The slow first two acts followed by the barrage of new information and data introduced in the cobbled final act give the film the feel of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk–without the action sequence excitement. Despite a concocted but interesting narration by a young Fleming, this isn’t The Courier or The Imitation Game or Valkyrie, although it is close in tempo to The Monuments Men. One can imagine how this material might play more thrilling if told from the vantage of the dead body, or from any of the Axis operatives encountered along its path, or even someone watching this strange development from across the street.
The best part? The musical score by Thomas Newman (1917, Skyfall, The Adjustment Bureau, Road to Perdition, The Shawshank Redemption, Deceived, The Man with One Red Shoe), which transcends the film. With 15 Academy Award nominations, this very well could be the year he takes Oscar home.
Operation Mincemeat is not based on Montagu’s novel or the earlier 1950 novel Operation Heartbreak, but Edgar Award and Agatha Award finalist Benedict Macintyre’s 2010 book Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II. The film is directed by Oscar nominee John Madden who directed Shakespeare in Love and the trilogy of Star Wars radio dramas in the 1980s and 1990s.
More for fans of historical fiction and the star cast (how can you not enjoy two hours of Firth, Macdonald, and Isaacs?) than spy thriller aficionados, Operation Mincemeat is now streaming on Netflix.