CAST: Colin Firth, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Penelope Wilton, Johnny Flynn, Lorne MacFadyen, Jason Isaacs, Hattie Morahan, Simon Russell Beale, Paul Ritter, Mark Gatiss, Alexander Beyer, Nicholas Rowe, Gabrielle Creevy
RUNNING TIME: 128 mins
BASICALLY…: In 1943, a small group of British officers form a deception plot that could turn the tide of the war…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
The Omicron-inspired delaying of director John Madden’s Operation Mincemeat from early January to mid-April may have seemed sensible at the time, but now the film has an even more awkward adversary standing in the way of its release. As of writing, a much more comedic stage production that also happens to be titled Operation Mincemeat, both after the infamous Second World War deception plot that is considered a turning point of the war, is currently causing a storm in London’s West End, with critics and audiences sharing their strong enthusiasm for the fringe project, which is quickly becoming a hot (overpriced) ticket among the theatre elite.
Could the much livelier stage version overshadow the much higher-budgeted, more Hollywood-friendly dramatization? It’s possible, because the film version of Operation Mincemeat is, while handsomely made and occasionally compelling, a very safe depiction of deception which sometimes talks down to the audience more than the comedy version currently playing on stage.
Set during the midst of the Second World War, general assumption is that Nazi Germany is marching slowly towards Britain after slowly engulfing most of Europe, unless the Allied forces can find a way to beat Hitler and his goons at their own game. Enter Operation Mincemeat, a government plan formulated by former Naval officer Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and intelligence officer Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Mcfadyen) that is designed to fool the German army into sending their forces to Greece to prevent a planned invasion, only for the Allies to instead attack and reclaim Sicily. Their plan involves letting false information be retrieved by Germany via a drowned corpse carrying fake documents; the mission is then on, for not just Montagu and Cholmondeley but also collaborators including widowed MI5 secretary Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) and future James Bond author Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), to find an untraceable corpse and create an entire false identity for it, one that’s convincing enough to trick the Germans into believing the Greece invasion plans are real.
The events of Operation Mincemeat certainly make for an interesting wartime story, one that has graced the big screen before in the 1956 film The Man Who Never Was (based on a book by Mincemeat’s head honcho Ewen Montagu) and, presumably, put to effective slapstick/screwball use in that current stage version. Madden’s film, though, approaches the plot in a very old-fashioned manner, with the kinds of dialogue and performances that wouldn’t have been too out of place in a Hollywood film from the 50s or 60s, while still attempting to steer things toward an overall crowd-pleasing conclusion (it’s not exactly a spoiler to say that the plan is a complete success, otherwise it wouldn’t have become so known for being one of the greatest deception plots of all time). Sometimes this adds to the film’s retro charm, but other times it can fall victim to a number of stale conventions and forced-in drama beats that make the good intentions feel much more contrived. A romantic sub-plot, involving Firth, Macdonald and Macfadyen’s characters, is the key culprit in making the film feel all too Hollywood in the sickliest of senses; regardless of the awkward age difference between Firth and Macdonald (roughly fifteen years between them), which doesn’t exactly help the stereotype of older actors having younger love interests on-screen, the whole thing feels wildly unnecessary to the overall plot, and makes the resulting actions of those like Macfadyen’s continuously scorned Cholmondeley character seem incredibly petty in retrospect.
While the script by Michelle Ashford (making her feature debut after working on TV shows and miniseries such as Masters of Sex and The Pacific) plays things out in a wholly safe and manufactured way, presenting the complex titular operation as straightforwardly as general audiences will accept, flashes of inspiration do occasionally shine through. The writing is clearly having fun depicting the development of this fictional identity that this corpse has to be known as, with one sequence that sees Firth’s Montagu writing a letter written by the fake soldier being treated like a typical Hollywood screenwriting process, with draft after draft produced until the blandest, most ineffective version is used. There are also some morbidly funny moments with this corpse, including the main characters trying to stop the body from flopping over when they’re trying to take a picture of it, and applying whatever they can to make it look not so dead in the final photograph. Had there been more moments like this, where the funnier side of this wildly absurd operation were made far more apparent, perhaps Operation Mincemeat wouldn’t have seemed so straightlaced and matter-of-fact as much of it ends up feeling.
The movie is competently made, although nothing immediate stands out in terms of the direction, cinematography, or even the Thomas Newman musical score; it’s mostly a film that’s been primed to look as handsome as possible, but harbour little else beneath the surface other than the cold, hard facts. The acting is decent all around, with the occasional far-reaching performance (Simon Russell Beale doesn’t make for a particularly convincing Winston Churchill), but otherwise everyone from Firth to Macfadyen to Johnny Flynn’s underused Ian Fleming still do well enough. Mostly, though, Operation Mincemeat is serviceable, but disappointingly disposable, historical entertainment that certainly depicts the events that it’s titled after, but isn’t particularly memorable or effective with the unnecessary levels of drama that have been applied to it.
It’s saying something that a fringe stage production in the West End has found a more unique and memorable way of depicting Operation Mincemeat than the actual movie based on it.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Operation Mincemeat is a competently made and acted historical drama, but while its depiction of the famed deception plot flashes occasional inspiration in its unexpectedly morbid humour, the script plays things all too safely with a straightforward approach and the unnecessary addition of drama beats that drag the plot down.