The British film industry loves their wartime dramas and, frankly, it’s something they’re very good at. With the box office success of such recent films as DARKEST HOUR, DUNKIRK and 1917, it was only a matter of time before they dipped into the well again. With OPERATION MINCEMEAT though, they came up with a new twist on an old film.
The time is 1943 and the Allies are determined to break the grip Hitler has on occupied Europe. Though an all-out invasion of Sicily is planned, there is the concern that Hitler assumes this will happen and will be ready for the attack, resulting in an unacceptable number of losses on the Allied side. Two intelligence officers, Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth, SUPERNOVA; THE SECRET GARDEN; 1917; MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN; BRIDGET JONES’S BABY) and Squadron Leader Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen, THE ASSISTANT; THE CURRENT WAR) devise an elaborate disinformation plan, dubbed Operation Mincemeat, that is intended to cause Hitler to shift his forces off the island and over to Greece and Elba, allowing the Allies to set up a beachhead for their next objective – the liberation of Italy.
If you know your old movies, this story will sound familiar. The 1956 film, THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS, tells pretty much the same story. As that film was released so soon after the end of the war, some of the facts of the real operation – yes, it really did happen – were still too fresh to be revealed to the public. Now, nearly 80 years later, the whole story can be told, although OPERATION MINCEMEAT does take a few liberties with the truth. This version of the story teases a love triangle developing between the married Montagu, his widowed secretary, Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald, GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN, TV’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE) and Cholmondeley, which reportedly never happened in real life.
For the most part, OPERATION MINCEMENT is both fascinating and amusing to watch, as the good guys concoct their plan, sell it to Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs, MASS; the HARRY POTTER franchise), who in turn must sell it to Churchill. Along the way, the trio, along with Montagu’s fiercely loyal secretary, Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton, the DOWNTON ABBEY franchise), comes up against snag after snag but they put their thinking caps on and figure out creative solutions that might just work into fooling Hitler and his senior advisors. Equally amusing is a running gag involving others in their sphere, including one Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming, who all seem to be busy writing spy novels on the government’s shilling.
Where the film doesn’t work, though, is the budding romance between Montagu and Leslie. Even though Firth was once a movie heartthrob (both he and Macfadyen played Mr. Darcy in different productions of PRIDE & PREJUDICE), he doesn’t have it anymore. It might have been that the 61-year-old actor was too old to play Montagu, as the real Montagu was just 42 at the time.
All told though, OPERATION MINCEMEAT is well made, as all these British period dramas are, with competent though not overly inspiring direction from Oscar winner John Madden (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE). If you should watch the 1956 film, you’ll see that the story’s structure is very similar with nearly identical bookends.
OPERATION MINCEMEAT opens in Hong Kong tomorrow (June 16th). It has been playing in other markets for a few months now, and it’s also available on Netflix in markets like the US. Check it out. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.
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