British espionage team embarking on a scheme to fool Adolf Hitler during the Second World War find they are susceptible to deceit and deception in their own lives. What could have been a plodding step-by-step documentary-style picture is given a huge fillip by examination of the lives of those involved. The twists and turns of this extraordinary tale, both in the professional and personal sense, make for a very enjoyable picture. It is no less thrilling for, like The Day of the Jackal (1973), being aware of the outcome.
Planning to invade Sicily in 1943, the Allies are determined to convince Hitler that they are instead more likely to attack Greece. The British come up with “Operation Mincemeat,” a variation on the Trojan horse with the “gift” this time being secret papers referring to the Greek assault that are contained in a briefcase attached to a corpse which washes up on the shores of Cadiz in Spain. The assumption is that the German high command is predisposed to being hoodwinked after having ignored the papers on a genuine corpse that came their way prior to the invasion of north Africa.
Tasked with devising the operation are the accomplished Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and the gawky Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) into whose orbit comes Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) whose persona is used to provide a romantic background for the corpse. Although the project has been given the green light from the highest authority i.e Winston Churchill (Simon Russell Beale) not everyone is in favour and the team face obstacles, since technically the plan comes under the remit of the Royal Navy, from Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs).
The romantic intrigue that ensues creates sufficient resentment for one member of the team to spy on the other at the behest of the admiral, thus ensuring that those charged with deceiving Hitler through moral means are entering into immoral personal activity.
But what drives this picture is the detail. Finding the correct type of corpse, ensuring it is preserved and has sufficient water in the lungs to make a convincing drowned man at the same time as creating a suitable legend for the character. Films dependent on the inner workings of espionage science, for want of a better word, do not always work. Enigma (2001), a riveting book, did not translate well onto the screen while The Imitation Game (2014), covering similar territory, did. Here, the minutiae of minutiae are presented in such detail it is an education, down to the importance of an eyelash, how to extract a letter without breaking the seal on an envelope, and, critically how to judge whether the Germans have examined the material closely enough to ensure they have taken the bait.
And that’s before other twists and turns. The corpse was a down-and-out, abandoned, so it appeared, by all and sundry, until out of the blue his sister arrives to claim the body. The coroner on duty in Cadiz turns out, against all expectations, to be an expert in drowning. The British Attache in Spain must seduce both genders to ensure smooth passage of the secret documents. On the more human side, widows abound, husbands lost in combat. A spy on the British side must be unmasked or rendered harmless. A host of other smaller stories unfold within the larger narrative. Above all lies the tension of the necessity for the operation’s success, failure would mean the deaths of thousands of men on the Sicily beachheads and possibly a thwarted invasion.
Matthew Macfadyen (Succession, 2018-2021) steals the show as the over-sensitive individual with the sense of entitlement that comes from having too big a brain, Oscar-winner Colin Firth (Kingsman: The Secret Service, 2014) the imperturbable figure who finds emotion wreaks havoc, Kelly Macdonald (Goodbye Christopher Robin, 2017) the secretary drawn deeper into a world where genuine emotion has little place.
The cream of British character actors providing sturdy support include Johnny Flynn (Emma, 2020) as spy writer Ian Fleming, Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey: A New Era, 2022), Mark Gatiss (The Father, 2020), Alex Jennings (Munich: The Edge of War, 2021), Jason Isaacs (The Death of Stalin, 2017) and Mark Bonnar (Guilt, 2019-2021). ,
Oscar-nominated John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, 19980 directs with something approaching verve, never letting the pace drop, zipping from scene to scene, from the war effort into more intimate moments, without any sign of the tension flagging. In her movie debut Michelle Ashford (The Masters of Sex, 2014-2016) does an excellent job of distilling Ben McIntyre’s bestselling book.
Sure, this is one of those British pictures in a long line of movies that show the country at its best, generally in the thick of war, but the story is so involving that it merits viewing. It is still showing at the time of writing in British cinemas but in the United States and Latin America it will air on Netflix on May 11.