“Operation Mincemeat” looks like a proper British spy drama and for the most part, well, it is. It’s based on the true story of wartime daring and heroism, features a classy cast including Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen and has a director in John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,” the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” movies) who’s made his name with exactly this kind of sturdy, old-fashioned fare.
But the story itself is so absurd and is told with enough surprises and dry humor that it’s constantly engaging. Imagine “Weekend at Bernie’s” set during World War II, with a dash of romance sprinkled in amid the spy craft and physical gags, and you’ll have some idea of the tricky tonal balance this film improbably achieves. “Operation Mincemeat” takes its title from the real-life mission that tricked Hitler into believing the Allies were going to invade Greece, rather than Sicily, in 1943. Ben Macintyre’s non-fiction book of the same name also provides the basis for television veteran Michelle Ashford’s sprawling script. But while the film as a whole may seem dense and restrained, the performances and attention to detail consistently bring it to life.
“Operation Mincemeat” also serves as a bit of a James Bond origin story. One of the British intelligence officers behind this unlikely plan was Ian Fleming, who would go on to create the iconic 007 character based on his own experiences working in espionage. So if you ever wondered about the inspiration behind such legendary figures as M and Q, you’re in for some amusing enlightenment. The charismatic actor and singer Johnny Flynn plays Fleming and provides the film’s dramatic narration, accompanied by the clickety-clack of his typewriter while the other members of his interagency intelligence squad get actual work done in their hidden headquarters. But who could blame the aspiring novelist for wanting to take notes? This stuff’s just too juicy.
Firth’s Ewen Montagu and Macfadyen’s Charles Cholmondeley lead the scheme to secure a body, dress it in a military uniform and dump it off the coast of Spain in the hope that it will wash ashore with a briefcase full of fake documents intact. A million pieces large and small must fall into place to ensure that this disinformation falls into precisely the right hands in order to deceive Hitler and break his army’s hold on Europe. And as is the case in any great heist movie, much of the fun comes from watching the players work through their plan. Here, that means creating a fictional identity and backstory for their deceased drifter that’s so complete and air-tight that it won’t raise suspicion. These brainstorming sessions between the officers Montagu and Cholmondeley, clerk Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) and secretary Hester Leggett (a lovely Penelope Wilton) have a snappy, lighthearted pace, but they also allow us to get to know these characters as it becomes clear that they’re not just playing a high-stakes game of make-believe. They’re investing their own very-real personalities, dreams and regrets into the made-up Capt. William Martin.
They’re also making themselves vulnerable in a profession that’s all about keeping up your defenses. That extends to the romantic bond that steadily builds between the widowed Jean and Ewen, who sent his wife and kids to America to protect them because they’re Jewish; early scenes suggest that the couple’s marriage was in jeopardy anyway. Macdonald and Firth have a sweet and easy chemistry tinged with the slightest sadness and world-weariness. They’re both great. But this burgeoning relationship grows complicated as it becomes obvious that Charles has feelings for Jean, as well; Macfadyen is mostly stoic, but he gets to deliver plenty of wry zingers. And mistrust begins to bubble up among everyone on the team as deceptions within the deception emerge.
“Operation Mincemeat” grows legitimately tense on both the personal and professional levels as the team executes the mission and waits anxiously to learn whether it was successful. Tiny zigs and zags along the way could mean disaster at any moment, and characters who may have seemed minor at first become majorly important as they’re forced to improvise. At times, you may wish Madden had taken the same kind of chances as the masterminds behind Operation Mincemeat, but his film is still sufficiently rousing.