18 May 2022

Review: Operation Mincemeat

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 18 May 2022

Operation Mincemeat is a remake of an unlikely but true story of World War II. 

After the war, the cinemas were filled with simple action movies, featuring famous achievements of the armed forces. But then later stories started to come out from behind the scenes - secret agents, code-breakers, double and triple crosses. 

Spy stories arrived – popularised by Ian Fleming’s James Bond – and never really went away. And one of the first and least likely featured Fleming himself in a minor role.


The story of a bizarre British plan to send the German troops to completely the wrong place had already been told in a 1956 movie called The Man Who Never Was.

What the new version – with the slightly more mundane title Operation Mincemeat – has over its predecessor, is over 50 years in which previously top-secret information has come to light.

It also benefits from director John Madden, back to his Shakespeare in Love standard after some fairly ho-hum efforts at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  

The story opens on Ewen Montagu, a Whitehall desk jockey given the impossible task of making Sicily seem an unlikely jumping off spot to attack Italy.

He’s actually got a plan – or rather an over-imaginative underling has come up with a plan, that underling being one Fleming, I.  

So with Fleming and another odd Whitehall bod called Charles Cholmondely – these names! – Ewen sets to work to invent a dead secret agent who happens to land in the lap of the Nazis.

If there’s one thing Madden has always been good at, it’s casting.   Colin Firth plays leader Montagu, Matthew McFadyen is a terrific foil as Charles. Playing Fleming is star in waiting Johnny Flynn.  

Jason Isaac plays their remote boss, nicknamed “M” – see what they did there? – while this time Winston Churchill is played by stage star Simon Russell Beale.

From the start, Operation Mincemeat is partly about playing with the usual clichés of the wartime genre – a la Shakespeare in Love – and partly showing how fiendishly difficult this seemingly simple deception actually is.  

Their fictional dead secret agent – now named William Martin – has to be given a credible backstory, and a reason for doing what he’s doing.

The answer to both is a girlfriend, provided by another of the team, Jean Leslie, played by Kelly McDonald.

And once Jean joins the team, the plot thickens. More than one plot, really. Not only is the tale of William Martin given depth, even romance, so is that of Ewen, Charles and Jean.  

You can’t work that close on such an intimate task – they all take turns writing believable love-letters between William and his girlfriend Pam – without feelings becoming heated.

But aside from plotting the fictional spy’s love-life, there’s the question of making sure the briefcase found on the late Double Oh William Martin reaches the Nazi High Command. 

As a location, Spain is uniquely suited for this. It may be nominally neutral, but dictator Franco is famously Nazi-friendly.

In this world of bluff and double bluff, the British had to look desperate to keep these Secret Papers away from Nazi prying eyes.  Meanwhile the Germans had to look as if they hadn’t seen the Secret Papers. And neither side had any way of knowing what the other side knew.  

No wonder Ian Fleming had such a lovely war!

The power of Operation Mincemeat is in the fact that - ridiculous and unbelievable as this story is – it’s almost entirely true.  

There’s new information that suggests that there may very well have been anti-Hitler forces inside Germany greasing the pole along which this disinformation was sliding.

And another point – made lightly but firmly – was that the stakes had never been higher.  

Yes, it’s all a very long time ago now, but the events of Operation Mincemeat – and the intelligence climate it helped start - not only turned the tide of the War but shaped Europe for the next 80 years.   

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