Producers: Charles S. Cohen, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Kris Thykier Director: John Madden Screenplay: Michelle Ashford Cast: Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Penelope Wilton, Johnny Flynn, Jason Isaacs, Mark Gatiss, Hattie Morahan, Paul Ritter, Alex Jennings, Simon Russell Beale, James Fleet, Nicholas Rowe, Will Keen, Charlotte Hamblin, Lorne Macfadyen, Rufus Wright, Jonjo O’Neill, Ruby Bentall and Ellie Haddington Distributor: Netflix
One of the most daring and implausible disinformation missions of World War II is dramatized onscreen for the second time in John Madden’s new Netflix film. The earlier version, Ronald Neame’s 1956 “The Man Who Never Was,” was based on a 1953 memoir by Ewen Montagu, who had spearheaded the operation a decade earlier and was played by Clifton Webb. This retelling has been adapted from the 2011 book by Ben Macintyre, with Colin Firth as Montagu.
The idea, originally envisioned by Rear Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), the Director of Naval Intelligence, and his assistant Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), was to mislead the Nazis by planting misinformation on a corpse cunningly dressed as an important Allied courier. As implemented by Montagu and his colleague Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen), it involved dumping the body of a homeless man, carrying papers identifying him as the fictitious Major William Martin, into the sea off the coast of Spain. It was hoped that the supposedly neutral but pro-fascist Spanish government would find the supposed drowning victim and share the papers in the case attached to the corpse’s wrist with the Germans; the documents indicated that the Allies were going to aim their attack from North Africa not on Sicily, the actual target, but on Greece. The hope was that the Germans would be duped and send reinforcements to the eastern Mediterranean rather than Sicily.
Madden’s film follows the planning and execution of the operation meticulously, though in a fashion that upholds the tradition of British understatement. It lacks the adrenaline surge of a James Bond adventure—indeed, it has very few exterior sequences at all, being largely taken up with conversations in offices and clubs—though Michelle Ashford’s script has it narrated by Flynn’s Fleming, in diction that deliberately takes on the florid style of espionage fiction. The performances by Firth and Macfadyen epitomize the stiff-upper-lip manner of proper English officers of the period, with one exception.
That involves what amounts to a romantic triangle that develops between them and the attractive young widow Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), who becomes an important part of their team after contributing a photo of herself, as well as a love letter, to serve among the items in the dead man’s effects as evidence of the major’s background. Charles, a shy bachelor still living with his mother, is besotted with Jean from the get-go, but she shows interest in Ewen, a man in a troubled marriage whose wife (Hattie Morahan) has gone to America with their children to escape a possible German invasion. And Montagu finds himself drawn to her. That causes friction between the two men, which allows their superior Godfrey, who harbors doubts about Mincemeat’s viability in any event, to encourage the envious Charles to keep watch on Ewen because the latter’s brother Ivor (Mark Gatiss) is suspected of being a Russian agent.
“The Man Who Never Was” did not include such a sub-plot, which allows Firth and Macfadyen some emotional outbursts; Cholmondeley doesn’t even appear by name in that movie (nor does Fleming). Of course, the omission could be explicable simply because it was based on a memoir by Montagu, who is unlikely to have written about it even if it had happened. On the other hand, the new film gives only scant attention to the last-minute threat to the mission posed by a mystery man who approaches Jean on behalf of German officers plotting a coup against Hitler. In the earlier film, a great deal of the running-time is devoted to the efforts of an IRA man working with the Nazis (Stephen Boyd) to investigate the background of Major Martin in order to ensure them of his identity—a mission that leads him to the woman posing as the dead man’s fiancée (in this case, the roommate of Montagu’s assistant).
Others may wish to investigate which of the two films is the more accurate on these and other matters, like the sudden appearance in Madden’s film of a relative of the dead man whose claim to the body could derail the operation at the last minute. The likelihood, of course, is that both have taken liberties with the record for dramatic effect, though in different ways.
Setting aside such historical issues—as well as the question of whether, as the film argues, the disinformation effort was the primary reason why the assault on Sicily was so successful (it’s presented in relatively small-scale terms here, but one can always go back to “Patton” for a more spectacular re-enactment)—“Operation Mincemeat” is a polished, if not overly exciting, account of what was surely one of the most extraordinary Allied intelligence successes of World War II. Ashford’s script and Victoria Boydell’s editing keep the plot convolutions clear, Madden’s direction is typically tidy, and the supporting cast boasts an array of expert character actors, the most notable being Penelope Wilton as the team’s veteran executive secretary and Simon Russell Beale as a risk-taking Winston Churchill. The picture is also visually elegant, with fine period detail in John Paul Kelly’s production design and Andrea Flesch’s costumes and lustrous cinematography by Sebastian Blenkov. Thomas Newman’s score complements the action nicely without becoming obtrusive.
“Operation Mincemeat” may not be historically sound in every respect, and its romantic turns can go a mite squishy, but it makes clear that one of the turning points in World War II was a matter of cunning as well as courage. And if the script is to be believed, the change in the mission’s name (it was originally called “Operation Trojan Horse”) gave Churchill the opportunity to deliver one of his gleefully barbed reactions when it succeeded.