The premise is so crazy that it’s a wonder nobody’s attempted a “Weekend at Bernie’s” take on “Operation Mincemeat,” one of the cleverest bits of spycraft pulled off by the Brits during World War II. Morbid as the story might be, there’s something jaunty about this real moment in history, John Bull having a bit of sport with Gerry, eh wot?
But the new film by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,” “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) would rather show us the logistics, the nuts and bolts of procuring a dead soldier’s body, planting believable fake invasion plans on him, all to fool the Germans about target of the next Allied counter-offensive.
It loses itself in the layers of details, the in-house intrigues and a possible love triangle at the heart of the plot and sinks or swims in being more thorough than previous tellings of the tale (1956’s “The Man Who Never Was”). A grand cast, great period detail and a tense, generally somber tone help one and all pull it off.
In the spring of 1943, the Western Allies routed Rommel and chased the Germans out of North Africa. Churchill’s “soft underbelly of Europe” strategy, meant to placate the Russians and divide German strength, dictated they’d jump from North Africa to…where?
Sicily seemed obvious. Corsica and Sardinia easier pickings. Maybe Greece?
To shake the German confidence in bulking up the defenses of Sicily, a couple outside-the-box thinkers, accomplished lawyer turned Naval Intelligence officer Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and — “eccentric” flight officer and Operation Trojan Horse progenitor Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) pushed a “crazy” scheme.
Cholmondeley is the one who first thought up the idea of dropping a body with papers on it where the Germans would find it to confuse the enemy. When Lt. Commander Montagu got on board the idea, they renamed it to the less obvious “Mincemeat” and struggled to get it past a superior (Jason Isaacs) and onto Churchill’s desk.
“The Old Man” had gambler’s taste for long shots.
The dashing spy Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), future creator of James Bond, would be a good bloke to have in their corner. A joke is made about all the Whitehall (government) military men enjoying being far away from the front lines by taking on book projects. Fleming is seen typing away at this and narrating (although Montagu is the one who actually wrote a book about it).
The script then invites us into the sometimes testy discussions and problem-solving that involved “tossing a letter-laden corpse into the sea.” What body? How do you “create a real fake man out of a real dead man?” How should they pick a common-enough name for him? How many military higher-ups should contribute to those letters without giving away the game? How do you keep the ink dunked in sea water from blurring? And where, and under whose purview, do you toss this “letter-laden corpse” so that the paranoid, third-rate thinker Fuhrer has it brought to his attention?
Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton) is the ranking woman on this staff, the one who’d give a woman’s touch to love letters mixed in with the others. And a new recruit, the widowed Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) would help with that, and provide a photo from her youth to add authenticity to the package.
“Was he happy?” “The girl I was at 20 was his muse.”
With so much to fret over and so many moving parts, the last thing this operation needs is a possible Soviet spy in a family tree, mistrust in the chain of command, leaks, a failing marriage and the shared interest of our two top men in the Scots lass who’s asked to be assigned to their office.
Keep in mind that the two actors playing these men both portrayed Jane Austen’s male ideal Mr. Darcy in competing versions of “Pride and Prejudice” and you get a sense of how tough a choice it must have been for Mrs. Leslie.
Firth and Macfadyen provide most of the acting fireworks here, wrangling over specifics, over who doesn’t trust whom, over the subordinate they pine for and her “reputation,” seeing as one of those interested in her is a married man.
The arguments get so heated that one wonders if the Dueling Darcys had to be separated between takes.
As the great historian David McCullough always says about figures from history, “Nobody back then knew how this would turn out,” something one senses in every performance and in every “Mincemeat” scene.
We may get glimpses of where Fleming got his “M” and “Q” characters from, but the stakes are high and the sober seriousness of how one treats a dead body is never regarded as a “joke.”
If a movie about fighting fascists by tricking them has anything to say to audiences today, that might be it. Sacrifice, even unknowing sacrifice, is honored. Duty to country comes before petty personal concerns, something some of the participants in that Operation have a hard time remembering.
Yes, the Nazis hired “only the best people” for a lot of their espionage, and many were fops and gullible fools. But thousands of lives in a war that was already bleeding Britain dry were at stake.
In British history, “their finest hour” films were their version of America’s Westerns. This cast lifts “Operation Mincemeat” above the genre programmers of the past, but that’s where you’d find its readiest comparisons, in movies like “The Dam Busters” and “The Man Who Never Was.”
Madden, screenwriter Michelle Ashford and the cast perform their greatest service in reminding us that real history, unadorned, can make the best drama.
Rating: PG-13 for strong language, some sexual content, brief war violence, disturbing images, and smoking
Cast: Colin Firth, Kelly MacDonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Jason Isaacs, Johnny Flynn and Penelope Wilton.
Credits: Directed by John Madden, scripted by Michelle Ashford. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:08