The effects of the World War II reverberated across the globe and impacted people from all walks of life. As a result, there are countless movies sharing stories of heroism and horror, savagery and sacrifice, patriotism and oppression. True accounts stretching from the battlefront to the streets of occupied cities; from war rooms to concentration camps, are still waiting to be told.
In many ways, movies have been instrumental in informing generations on lesser known yet equally significant World War II stories. Some are bold and thrilling; others are somber and moving. And occasionally you get those that are so utterly implausible that you wouldn’t believe them if they weren’t true. Such is the case for the new Netflix Original “Operation Mincemeat”.
In 1943, with a quarter of a million dead in battle and no end of the war in sight, the Allies began preparations for a crucial invasion of Sicily. But Sicily was an obvious target, and Hitler was moving in troops to repel any possible advance. So in order to pull off a surprise attack, the Allies would need an elaborate deception – something to shift the Fuhrer’s attention away from the heavily reinforced Sicily.
Directed by John Madden and written by Michelle Ashford, “Operation Mincemeat” chronicles one of the most remarkable (and improbable) military deceptions of World War II. A small group from British intelligence concocted and orchestrated an intricate ruse aimed at fooling Hitler into thinking Greece was the next Allied target. Ashford’s script tells the story through a crafty blend of fact and fiction. It plays best as a wartime drama and spy thriller. But there’s also a romantic angle thrown in that never quite simmers the way it should.
Colin Firth plays Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, a seasoned serviceman with the British Navy intelligence who teams with RAF Officer Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) to plan, coordinate and execute their extraordinary (and on the surface absurd) ruse. It went something like this: take a real corpse, dress it up like a real British officer, attach to it a briefcase of fake secret documents pointing to Greece as the Allies next target, and then dump the body into the Gulf of Cadiz off the coast of neutral Spain. What could go wrong?
To get their plan in motion, Montagu and Cholmondeley put together a small but crack team to help. Among them is Montagu’s devoted and straight-shooting secretary Hester (the always terrific Penelope Wilton) and a young war widow named Jean (Kelly Macdonald) who agrees to fill a pivotal role in exchange for a seat at the table. Eventually Jean is the center of the rather lukewarm romantic tension as both Montagu and Cholmondeley are soon smitten with her. It’s an angle made up of some pretty good scenes that unfortunately never really go anywhere.
For their plan to work the team needs a corpse. They find it in the unclaimed body of a homeless man who died from ingesting rat poisoning. From there it’s about hammering out the details of their outlandish deception. The best scenes may be their planning sessions at the Gargoyle Club in Soho. There the team piece together an entire biography for their fake officer. They tag him with the generic name Major William Martin to make him hard to single out once German intelligence start snooping. They even create a love story between their Major and a young woman named Pam – a faux romance with an overly syrupy connection to the growing feelings between Montagu and Jean.
Playing the proverbial thorn in the side is Jason Isaacs as John Godfrey, a British Admiral who reports directly to the growling cantankerous Churchill (Simon Russell Beale). Godfrey doesn’t believe in Mincemeat but he is convinced Montagu and/or his brother is a Russian spy. He petitions to keep Mincemeat running in hopes of yielding intelligence on Montagu and his alleged connection to Moscow. Isaacs is no stranger to playing these types of characters and Godfrey is right on his wheelhouse.
Along the way, Madden and Ashford attempt to add depth to Montagu and Cholmondeley through a couple of personal side-stories – Montagu’s strained relationship with his wife Iris (Hattie Morahan) and Cholmondeley’s efforts to retrieve the body of his KIA younger brother. And while dramatic beats such as jealousy, deception and blackmail continue to play out, the second half mostly focuses on Mincemeat’s execution. It’s here that the tension really ratchets up.
Perhaps the filmmakers could have wrestled a bit more with the moral implications of the operation. And maybe the love triangle could have used some special sauce. But as a whole, “Operation Mincemeat” is a gripping stranger-the-fiction war drama brought to life by a craftier than expected script and an impressive ensemble. And when it comes to World War II history, I doubt you’ve heard many stories quite like this one. “Operation: Mincemeat” premieres tomorrow (May 11th) on Netflix.