War films — or any movies based on historical events, for that matter — can be tricky. In most cases, the audience knows where events will ultimately lead, so the story needs to create drama and intrigue out of the material that isn’t well-known and let the characters and their relationships draw you into a particular chapter in history.
The Netflix film Operation Mincemeat faces exactly that sort of conundrum with its dramatization of the titular, secret plan by Allied forces to trick the Nazis and hide the 1943 invasion of Sicily in the lead-up to that landmark mission. We know the Allied forces eventually win the war, after all, but filmmaker John Madden’s feature still manages to manufacture plenty of compelling moments in telling the story of one of history’s greatest wartime acts of deception.
Directed by Madden (Shakespeare in Love) from a script penned by The Pacific and Masters of Sex screenwriter Michelle Ashford, Operation Mincemeat is based on Ben Macintyre’s 2020 novel of the same name and chronicles the efforts of the small group of British military officers and their assistants who conceived and enacted a plan to make the Nazis believe Allied forces planned to invade Greece instead of Sicily — thereby diverting the German military away from Italy. To do so, the group crafted an elaborate ruse involving a corpse dressed like a high-ranking officer carrying official military correspondence being dropped in the ocean off the coast of Spain.
It was an audacious plan, certainly, and Madden’s film details many of the intricate details the team of espionage experts — which included James Bond author Ian Fleming — needed to not only account for, but go to alarming lengths to corroborate in order to stay ahead of their German counterparts.
The cast of Operation Mincemeat is led by Oscar-winner Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) as Naval intelligence officer and judge Ewen Montagu and Matthew Macfadyen (Pride & Prejudice, Succession) as MI5 agent Charles Cholmondeley, who are tasked with implementing Operation Mincemeat — named for the corpse that’s so integral to the plan. They’re joined by Kelly Macdonald (No Country For Old Men) as Jean Leslie, a woman working as an MI5 clerk who plays an important role in the deception, and Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey) as Hester Leggett, Montagu’s most trusted assistant. The cast is filled out by Jason Isaacs and Johnny Flynn as Naval intelligence director John Godfrey and his assistant, Ian Fleming, respectively.
Operation Mincemeat is at its best when the story dives into the team’s efforts to outthink the Germans by not only giving them a corpse, but an entire, fabricated history for the deceased, homeless drifter they transformed into the fictional Capt. William Martin, officer of the Royal Marines. Their efforts to think several steps ahead of their counterparts and anticipate any element that would raise Nazi agents’ suspicion is fascinating, with Macfadyen’s portrayal of Cholmondeley channeling a detail-oriented obsession that makes him both painfully awkward and absolutely indispensable for the mission at hand.
The lengths to which the group goes to sell their ruse — and maintain the secret — keeps the story compelling, and watching the various members create and solidify the fictitious life of the dead officer at the crux of the operation adds another layer of intrigue and depth to the film.
Where Operation Mincemeat falters, however, is in its willingness to sideline the efforts of the group for a romantic subplot involving Montagu and Leslie, who — the story wants us to believe — find themselves becoming emotionally involved as a result of becoming too immersed in the fiction they’ve created for the soldier and the (equally fictional) woman he loves. Their relationship in the film feels like an entirely unnecessary plot thread that, at best, distracts from the otherwise captivating story of the mission, and at worst, cheapens their respective characters’ roles by turning them into star-crossed lovers who wandered into an espionage thriller.
Fortunately, the film’s insistence on seeing that romantic subplot through doesn’t entirely overshadow fine performances by the cast.
Firth and Macfadyen have an entertaining relationship that teeters on the brink of adversarial, but the film opts not to explore that well-worn trope. Their characters never seem to forget that the mission is more important than their personal squabbles, which isn’t the way these sorts of stories typically go. Rather than exploit the presence of Fleming in these real-world historical events, the film makes smart use of him as a supporting character, teasing some of the elements that would inspire his stories but keeping him at a distance, lest the specter of his later, famous works overshadow the characters and personalities at play in this particular moment of time.
While Operation Mincemeat could have benefitted from more focus on the secret project in its title than the extraneous plot threads it pulls at, once you cut through all the romantic filler, the film still delivers an entertaining, effective dramatization of a particular moment in time that’s more deserving of attention.
Director John Madden’s Operation Mincemeat is available in theaters and on the Netflix streaming service.