Review: Based on a True Story, Operation Mincemeat Offers Drama, History and a Glimpse into WWII-era Personal Lives

One of the things I love about historical dramas is that they have a tendency to be dry, which I realize runs counter to what I typically like about films in general. Give me angsty, raw, emotional torment any day. But with my history, the freer the films are of emotion, the better (unless emotion somehow plays a role in the history, of course). So when I heard there was a film being made about the most successful deception ever perpetrated by intelligence officers during a war, I was excited to be downright parched from dehydration.

For those unfamiliar, Operation Mincemeat was a World War II-era top secret plan run by two brilliant intelligence officers, Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen), designed to fool the Germans into thinking a massive Allied invasion was coming via the shores of Greece when in fact a full-scale invasion of Sicily was the real plan. And the key to the entire operation was a dead body, disguised to look like a pilot killed in action and left floating in the ocean, who just happened to have the details of the false invasion on his person. 

Most of the planning of Mincemeat (carried out in 1943) had to do with creating a backstory for this dead man (actually the body of a vagrant with no apparent family looking for him), so the officers enlisted Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), a war widow working in their offices, to help them compile a life of this missing pilot that left behind a significant other back home. The details of his life and military career had to be believable but not exceptional, and the crafting of these forged documents was the key to the entire plan. And when Operation Mincemeat sticks to the facts, it’s near perfection.

The issues I had with Michelle Ashford’s script (based on a book by Ben Macintyre) was that there’s a great deal of added material (possibly true, but I don’t know) regarding the private lives of the key players. For instance, Montagu’s marriage is possibly falling apart as the film opens; his wife takes the kids and leaves for America for the duration of the war, ostensibly to keep everyone safe, though she’s also frustrated with her husband always putting the country ahead of his family. The shy Cholmondeley’s issue is more problematic: he has a crush on Leslie, who seems more interested in Montagu, and so we’re meant to believe that this love triangle figuring itself out is the key to winning the war. Standing somewhat on the sidelines but still very involved is Montagu’s longtime assistant (and close friend of his wife), Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton), who doesn’t want to interfere, even as she’s dishing out advice on decorum to all involved.

That being said, Operation Mincemeat is still largely a winner, blending the more personal tones with tension, humor, and the occasional unanticipated surprises that threaten to throw the whole plan out the window. It’s clear that success was never guaranteed, and we’re constantly reminded of that in unexpected ways. Directed with authority by John Madden (Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare in Love, Miss Sloane), the film also features Jason Isaacs as Admiral John Godfrey, who seems against the mission from the start; as well as two actors recently featured in The Outfit: Johnny Flynn playing a young James Bond creator Ian Fleming, who was apparently working out the early framework of his first Bond book, and Simon Russell Beale as Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Elements come into play in this story that I never saw coming, such as a secret group of “Good Germans” who secretly despise Hitler and may or may not have had a role in ensuring this plan worked successfully. I wish Operation Mincemeat hadn’t thrown so much of its focus in the various frustrated love lives of its lead characters, but it seems almost impossible to cast Firth in anything these days without romance becoming part of the equation. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it keeps the film from being truly great. Still, amateur history buffs are going to eat this up, even with its dalliances.

The film is now in select theaters, and begins streaming on Netflix on May 11.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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