The second-most preposterous thing about the story told in “Operation Mincemeat” is that it’s based on fact. The Netflix movie takes its title from the World War II espionage scheme that was the conflict’s most celebrated act of deception. “Operation Mincemeat” is also the title of Ben Macintyre’s best-selling 2010 nonfiction account. Macintyre’s book is the basis of the movie, which starts streaming May 11.
In 1943, the Allies were planning to invade Sicily, having successfully driven the Axis from North Africa. How to trick the enemy into thinking the next assault would be directed elsewhere in the Mediterranean? British Intelligence hit on an ingenious plan. Forge documents detailing a planned invasion of Greece. Put them on a corpse wearing the uniform of a British officer. Have the corpse wash up on a beach in Spain (presumably, he’d drowned in a plane crash). Assume that the Fascist Spanish government made sure those documents were seen by German agents, who would then report the information to Berlin.
Neither cloaks nor daggers required. No blood spilled. No codes to be cracked. But all sorts of difficulties to be overcome. Finding a dead man with fluid in his lungs, to mimic the effects of drowning. Compiling various materials to support his made-up identity, should the Germans investigate. Dealing with various time pressures — everything from tides (to make sure the body reached shore) to bodily decomposition (getting a suitable corpse wasn’t the only issue, getting one close enough to when the operation would be carried out was another). And there was biggest deadline of all: the planned date of the landings in Sicily.
It’s an astonishing story — preposterousness of genius — made all the more so for having actually occurred. This is definitely a case where, yes, truth is stranger than fiction. It’s more exciting, too. Unfortunately, this brings us to the most preposterous thing about “Operation Mincemeat”: that such remarkable material could make for such a plodding movie. A fine cast — Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Penelope Wilton — do their stiff-upper-lip best. It’s not good enough.
There was a 1956 film about the operation, “The Man Who Never Was.” Ronald Neame directed. John Madden, who’s best known for “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) and the two “Exotic Marigold Hotel” movies (2011, 2015), directed this one. You might wonder if those were the best preparation for making what is, in effect, an espionage procedural. You would be right.
Firth plays Ewen Montagu, the navy officer in charge of the plan. Firth’s beginning to look a bit puffy, which wouldn’t be as noticeable if he weren’t almost 20 years older than the actual Montagu. Mcfadyen plays the officer who comes up with the plan, Charles Cholmondeley. A real fussbudget, Cholmondeley is about as far as you can get from, say, Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Yes, Fleming (Johnny Flynn) is part of the intelligence group.
Fleming isn’t the only famous name on hand. Winston Churchill gets to waggle his cigar in a couple of scenes. Having the PM on hand in a movie set in wartime London has become pretty much de rigueur — like Hitchcock doing a cameo in his movies. There is a long, and mostly dubious, line of screen Churchills. Remember how Gary Oldman won an Oscar for playing him in “Darkest Hour” (2017) or Rod Taylor’s quite-funny bit in “Inglorious Basterds” (2011)? Best if you don’t remember Simon Russell Beale’s performance here.
Cholmondeley and Montagu form a romantic triangle of sorts — only of sorts, remember those stiff upper lips — with a war widow who works as a secretary in the office (Macdonald). The non-triangle triangle becomes a non-quadrilateral quadrilateral when a lonely GI briefly appears on the scene. The romantic angle is an example of the tarting up the story receives.
Another is a subplot involving Montagu’s brother possibly being a Soviet spy. This is historically accurate, but the ends to which it’s put here — a bit of extortion, an act of personal betrayal — are not. The Red brother is a red herring. Instigating the subplot is the chief of Naval Intelligence. Even if you’re a World War II buff, his name isn’t familiar. Probably the name of the actor playing him, Jason Isaacs, isn’t either. But Isaacs’s face is. Even in an admiral’s uniform, and a military haircut, the resemblance to Lucius Malfoy remains.
Directed by John Madden. Written by Michelle Ashford; based on the book by Ben Macintyre. Starring Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald. Streaming on Netflix. 127 minutes. PG-13 (strong language, some sexual content, brief war violence, disturbing images, smoking). In English and Spanish, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.