Operation Mincemeat is based on the book by Ben Macintyre, which in turn is based on what Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper called ‘the most spectacular single episode in the history of deception’. It is so spectacular that the film doesn’t have to do much aside from tell it, and that’s what it does, straightforwardly, plainly, no bells and whistles. It’s a classic tale of British second world war derring-do and the sort of film you’ll watch with your dad on a Sunday afternoon, before or after Ice Cold in Alex. Plus it has a terrific cast that includes not one but two Mr Darcys (Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen).
It’s 1943 when British Intelligence comes up with the idea of finding a corpse, dressing him up as a Royal Marine officer and then dumping him at sea off the Spanish coast with ‘top secret’ papers planted on the body suggesting that the Allied invasion would take place in Greece, as a smokescreen for the real, planned invasion of Sicily. The hope was that this information would make its way to German intelligence, clearing a path through Italy. It is a mad plan. Nuts. It’ll never work. But… could it?
The main characters are two British intelligence officers, Ewen Montagu (Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Macfadyen) although it’s posited here that the original idea came from another officer working within intelligence at the time, a certain Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn). They find their corpse. It’s Glyndwr Michael, a homeless Welshman who died from ingesting rat poison. He’s given the fictitious identity of Captain William ‘Bill’ Martin and now they must populate his ‘wallet litter’. That is, the items to be found on his body to make him appear convincing: a shop receipt, keys, a photograph of his fiancée, Pam. A secretary in the department, Jean (Kelly Macdonald), volunteers her photograph and becomes one of the team.
Directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), the focus is as much on the characters as the mission. Cholmondeley is, initially, rather hapless, almost Wambsgans-ish (one for you, Succession fans) while Montagu is stiff, reserved, restrained. ‘I know I can be remote’, he says to his wife, which doesn’t seem like something a man would recognise about himself in 1943, but there you are. They both fall for Jean which leads to a love triangle, even if I was less interested in that than the fact that whenever the three were out together – walking down the street, having a drink at the Gargoyle Club – they spoke about this top-secret operation at the tops of their voices. This was baffling and I kept wanting to bang their heads together and say: ‘Hey, guys, come on! Careless talk costs lives!’ And also I kept wanting the film to hurry back to the main plot, as this is when it’s at its best. They had to get every little detail right, including a headshot of ‘Captain Martin’ for his identity papers. Have you ever tried to make a dead man’s face look alive?
If you are familiar with the story you may well find this flat and plodding and insufficiently tense but as I wasn’t I found it mostly gripping. And there are scenes that indisputably crackle with life, as when the Spanish local coroner turns out to be not as clueless as British Intelligence had hoped. There may, it’s true, be a surfeit of subplots. There’s one concerning Montagu’s brother, another concerning Cholmondeley’s brother, and Fleming seems as if he’s been air-lifted in from another film entirely, possibly a comedy. His only purpose here is to wink at us, the audience, because we know he’ll go on to write James Bond. But otherwise, this is highly enjoyable and well-performed, and it finishes movingly with real footage of Glyndwr Michael’s grave, now amended. No one has ever ingested rat-poison for a better cause.