A fascinating window into real-life intelligence work, Operation Mincemeat is at its best when trying to be a spy movie and weakest when flirting with romance. Based on a true story, Mincemeat tells the tale of Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen), two British spies who conspire to pull a trick on Hitler during WW2.
Using a dead body and a briefcase full of fake documents, the pair plot to convince the Führer that Britain intends to begin the invasion of Europe through Greece, leaving the army’s true target, Sicily, undefended. The only problem is that Hitler and the Axis Powers will expect this strategy.
As such, Montagu and Cholmondeley must give the briefcase-carrying cadaver a backstory so believable even the Nazi’s master spies will be fooled. To do so, they recruit a ragtag team, including Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton), and future James Bond writer Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), to fabricate the perfect backstory for their courageous corpse. If that wasn’t difficult enough, they have to do so under the withering eye of incredulous Admiral Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), who believes their plan will fail.
Operation Mincemeat is a good war movie, but it’s not a great one. It’s probably best described as the type of film that if you caught on a Sunday evening after a big roast dinner, you wouldn’t be in a rush to change the channel, but you wouldn’t be too bothered if you dozed off either.
The biggest issue with the film is the precarious balance the film tries to strike between the highly absorbing spy story and the dull as dishwater romance. I understand why screenwriter Michelle Ashford included a love story between Montagu and Jean in the film. It’s an attempt to make the austere and flinty spy more relatable and even, dare I say, human.
It also allows for some drama when Cholmondeley, who harbours feelings for Jean, discovers the growing connection between his friend and his would-be paramour. The issue is that it distracts from the greater and more absorbing side of the story, the titular operation and the attempt to save thousands of lives.
We know it’s seemingly illegal to make a film that’s less than two hours now, but the whole subplot feels like fat in cheap mince. Gristly and unnecessary, it adds no flavour to the movie, only padding out the run time. Now that’s not to say Macdonald and Firth make a meal of things. The pair do have a certain type of chemistry. It’s just not a romantic one, it feels more paternal, and I never really bought into the idea that the pair truly loved each other.
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Still, it’s not all bad. The spy story at the heart of the film is gripping (this is the type of movie that has you googling the true facts as soon as you leave the theatre), and the cast does a great job at making the preposterous seem reasonable. It helps, of course, that the movie is based on a true story, and the entire cast plays the whole thing incredibly straight despite the incredulity of their scheme.
Special mention has to be made of Macfadyen, he’s channelling the same buttoned-up frustration that made him a star in the TV series Succession, but he really brings humanity to Cholmondeley. Despite arguably being a foil for Montagu, you never stop feeling empathy for him even when he’s behaving badly. I think it’s his hangdog expression. You just want to tell him everything’s going to be alright.
Firth and Macdonald are also good when they’re not distracted by their romantic subplot. Macdonald, in particular, lent Jean a necessary fierceness, while Firth is an officious monument to the British notion of a stiff upper lip. My favourite character, however, was Wilton’s quick-witted and waspish Hester. There’s a reason Wilton’s on the shortlist for national treasuredom, and she’s brilliantly mischievous here.
Ashford’s script makes the obscene seem sensible, which is a tall order considering how daft a plot the real Operation Mincemeat was. Were it not for the fact we’ve lived it, and we know it worked, I think more people would sympathise with Isaacs’s stern admiral, who seems to be the only character not benefiting from a degree of historical foresight.
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The script’s twisty narrative is juxtaposed with the relatively workman-like cinematography of Sebastian Blenkov and the direction of John Madden. Not that this is a bad thing, it’s the right move and is necessary to ground the film in something approaching the familiar. Not that the film doesn’t have its surprising moments.
I was a big fan of a montage towards the end of the film where a James Bond-esque archetype goes on a series of missions involving a surprise handjob. It’s a sticky job, but someone’s got to do it.
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I liked Operation Mincemeat. As I wrote, I think it’s a good movie that lends some real cinematic panache to an absorbing real-life story, and there are some great performances.
It’s just a shame that it got bogged down in a pretty standard love story because I think it had the potential to be great if a slightly more cutthroat editor had been allowed to take their butcher’s knife to the film.
If you think this sounds like something you might like to see, check out our guide on watching Operation Mincemeat.
Operation Mincemeat review
An intriguing examination of a true historical event that gets bogged down in a dull romance