‘Operation Mincemeat’ review: Surprisingly lighthearted British war drama sheds light on a story too fantastic to be fiction [Grade: B]
Wars have always been full of stories so fantastic they can only be true. The real story behind Netflix’s new war drama Ground Meat Operation is definitely one of those tales. Directed by John Madden, the film brings the titular sabotage operation by the British during World War II to life from the perspective of those in the Home Office planning it.
Operation Mincemeat was part of the larger Operation Barclay and was designed to give the Axis powers the wrong idea of where the Allied forces were going to invade. British intelligence used the body of a homeless man named Glyndwr Michael, who died of rat poisoning, to impersonate a Royal Marines officer named Captain William Martin. They placed personal items on the body to make their invented persona more authentic, as well as correspondence between British generals intending to invade Greece and Sardinia. The British allowed the corps to be beached on Spanish shores, knowing that despite the country’s neutral stance in the war, they would allow the information to fall into German hands. The operation convinced the Germans and so the invasion of Sicily in 1943 was a success.
Based on Ben Macintyre’s book, Michelle Ashford’s screenplay centers on the planning of this deception at British headquarters, from choosing the corpse to writing the letters that would be placed on his person. The office is populated by a who’s who of British period dramas, from Simon Russell Beale’s rather convincing Winston Churchill to Penelope Wilton’s no-nonsense head of the secretarial unit. Jason Isaacs comes across as a very stern John Godfrey, while Johnny Flynn’s Ian Fleming narrates the film. (And yes, there are several nods to the James Bond books he would later write.)
The bulk of the film centers around intelligence officers played by two different Darcys: Colin Firth (from the 1995 BBC production) and Matthew Macfadyen (from the 2005 Joe Wright film). Macfadyen’s Charles Cholmondeley is “a flightless bird”, an air force ground pilot who deals with the shadow cast upon him by his deceased war hero brother. Macfadyen excels in this kind of tense and reserved role and continually conveys the idea that there are hundreds of emotions bubbling beneath the surface.
Meanwhile, Colin Firth’s Ewen Montagu is a little more confident, despite the issues he’s having at home. While the film is largely made up of encounters and conversations, with talents like these, it remains engaging. The scenes between Macfadyen and Firth are particularly fun to watch – and not just to see two Darcys interact.
Although this is a war movie, its softer moments make it clear why Madden – who previously directed Shakespeare in love and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – took over the project. The focus is on creating the personal details to carry out the fictional officer’s life and in particular his imaginary romance with a woman they name Pam. Secretary Jean Leslie (played by Kelly Macdonald) offers her photo to accompany William Martin’s paperwork and finds herself drawn into the planning. Watching the trio dream up a tragic romance for Bill and Pam, it’s almost possible for them and us to forget the war that’s going on nearby.
Unfortunately, the film wastes much of its two-hour runtime on an unnecessary love triangle between Ewen, Jean, and Charles. It’s a plot point that’s tedious, rather than engaging, and takes away the more interesting aspects of the story being told. The movie would have been better off without the imagined romance as a way to create tension between Ewen and Charles, or even let the romance happen between Jean and Charles without any involvement from Ewen. It’s the epitome of a film in which the historically accurate parts are more interesting than the made-up ones.
Even with that flaw, it’s still a beautifully put together British period drama with beautiful settings, sets and costumes. Thomas Newman’s score is lively and perfectly adapted to the material. While no one in the cast gives a standout or surprising performance, they all deliver exactly the level of solid performance you’d expect from them. Although he only has a few scenes, Beale is a valuable addition to Churchill’s plethora of performances. Macfadyen is the star of the cast, but perhaps because her character has the most emotional depth.
Ground Meat Operation may not reinvent war drama, but it does manage to tell an incredibly weird and compelling true story that audiences may not be aware of. Despite the tension created as officers and secretaries wait to find out if their ruse worked and helped save lives during the British invasion of Sicily, it’s mostly a low-stress, feel-good movie. . Madden has made a great addition to the collection of British period dramas that are comfortable rainy day watches with a reliable cast that will keep you and your parents happy.
Ground Meat Operation is currently in limited release in theaters and arrives on Netflix on May 11.
Photo: Giles Keyte