A batshit mad idea on paper – and, to be fair, in reality – Operation Mincemeat involved using a corpse to fool the Nazis into thinking the Allies were invading Greece rather than Sicily back in 1943. A meticulously plausible back story was concocted, and with the addition of one subtle red herring, planted on the body, which was then washed ashore on neutral Spain to be passed onto the Germans. It was 007 by way of Weekend at Bernie’s.
That juicy premise powers John Madden’s (Shakespeare in Love) enjoyable, if not entirely nailbiting dad-core war flick, which comes lavishly cast and nicely evokes a wartime London of dive bars, empty streets and smoky planning rooms. It works best when it zeroes in on the mission itself (Ronald Neame got there first with 1956’s The Man Who Never Was), but lets itself get derailed via a blitzkrieg of subplots that drain momentum at fatal moments.
Vying for top billing with the corpse itself is Colin Firth’s intel officer, floating this risky scheme with his angry boss, Vice-Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), and a just-about-persuadable Winston Churchill (Simon Russell Beale). Matthew Macfadyen’s lovelorn RAF flight-lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley is co-opted into the team and away they go, sourcing a body, building a back story and trying to keep a lid on their crafty scheme.
Amid the earnestness and portentous voiceovers outlining the stakes, Operation Mincemeat has some dark fun with all this. There’s a particularly macabre photoshoot and the film’s ticking clock works in increments of bodily decay, because in a few weeks the body will fall apart. The operation is initially called ‘Trojan Horse’, until someone points out that it’s a bit of a giveway.
This enjoyable, if not entirely nailbiting dad-core war flick, nicely evokes wartime London
Having the most fun is Johnny Flynn as intel officer and future James Bond creator Ian Fleming. He soaks it all up with the wry amusement of a man who would eventually turn out multiple versions of these machinations, channelling Penelope Wilton’s brisk intel officer into Moneypenny and Isaac’s top dog into M.
But the myriad of inconsequential subplots bite. Too much time is given over to a love triangle involving Cholmondeley, Montagu and Kelly Macdonald’s intel officer, Jean Leslie, that even Jerry would have a tough time buying. There’s another involving Montagu’s brother (Mark Gatiss), who may or may not be a Soviet spy, and a very unexpected (not in a good way) twist of sorts that comes out of nowhere and almost immediately returns there.
It’s a shame because it distracts from the good stuff, and there’s some of that here too. The arrival of the body in Spain yields some genuinely tense scenes – enough to make you wish script lingered longer on this portion of the story.
Still, if you’re on the hunt for a diverting slice of prestige espionage hokum that comes with a side helping of real history, Operation Mincemeat is a satisfying night at the pictures.
In UK cinemas Apr 15.