Director: John Madden
Cast: Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly MacDonald, Penelope Wilton, Johnny Flynn, Jason Isaacs
Runtime: 2 hrs 8 mins
Rating: M18 (Homosexual References)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 19 May 2022
Synopsis: It’s 1943. The Allies are determined to break Hitler’s grip on occupied Europe, and plan an all-out assault on Sicily; but they face an impossible challenge - how to protect a massive invasion force from potential massacre. It falls to two remarkable intelligence officers, Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) to dream the most inspired and improbable disinformation strategy of the war - centred on the most unlikely of secret agents: a dead man. Operation Mincemeat is the extraordinary and true story of an idea that hoped to alter the course of the war - defying logic, risking countless thousands of lives, and testing the nerves of its creators to breaking point.
We must admit that we have a soft spot for well-made British World War II thrillers, and when one as fine as ‘Operation Mincemeat’ comes along, we cannot help but embrace it wholeheartedly.
If its title comes off odd, that’s because it was the codename for a seemingly ridiculous plan by British intelligence to fool Hitler’s forces into believing that Allied forces were about to invade Greece when in fact they were about to descend upon Sicily and seize it from the Axis powers. The plan in this regard was to find a recent corpse, disguise it as a Royal Marine officer, plant false ‘Top Secret’ papers in the briefcase chained to his wrist, have his body wash up in Spain, and then guide the information on these papers into the hands of Nazi intelligence.
That the plan eventually succeeded is history, but director John Madden and screenwriter Michelle Ashford recreate the events outlined in the non-fiction book by Ben Macintyre with style, panache and suspense. Their retelling focuses not just on how the key architects of the operation, British Naval Intelligence officer Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and MI5 agent Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen), manage to pull it off, but also the dynamics between them and the other supporting players involved as they put the plan into motion.
So even as the storytelling earns its thrills through detailing the complications of giving a Welsh drifter named Glyndwr Michael who killed himself with rat poison the posthumous identity of one Captain William ‘Bill’ Martin, it also boasts surprisingly strong character beats by expanding on the relationship among Ewen, Charles and a bright, resourceful MI5 clerk named Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald). In exchange for offering up a photograph of herself to pass off as the loving fiancé of Major Martin, Jean insists on joining Ewen and Charles, sparking off a series of complications between and among them.
Without giving too much away, let’s just say it has something to do with Ewen’s no-gooder brother Ivor (Mark Gatiss) as well as the personal agenda of the Director of Naval Intelligence John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs); in particular, the latter’s disdain of Ewen is apparent right from the very start, which in turn extends to the seemingly preposterous scheme first nicknamed Operation Trojan House that Ewen suggests to the MI5’s Twenty Committee.
In Madden’s skillful hands, ‘Operation Mincemeat’ unfolds simultaneously as a caper with Ewen, Charles, Jean and the director of the Admiralty’s secretariat unit Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton) meticulously planning out every eventuality as it does as a drama about the inner machinations of these very brilliant people. Firth and Macfadyen make a great pair testing each other’s loyalties, while Macdonald is luminous as their equal not only in wisdom but also in solitude, leading to both involving and affecting consequences that give the movie a compelling emotional core.
Befitting of a movie about the greatest act of wartime deception, the movie is constructed on the distinction between truth and deception. It isn’t just the ploy itself that walks this tightrope, but also the very nature of the principals involved in the ploy as well as their connections with one another. Like we said, this is a very fine British World War II thriller, and even though it doesn’t have the budget for spectacle, its gripping true-life story and intriguing roster of characters will have you in its throes from start to finish.
(Both an engrossing caper and a compelling drama about truth and deception, this British World War II fact-based thriller is as fine a genre addition as any)
Review by Gabriel Chong