The true story of how a small team of Brits aimed to deceive Hitler over the Allies’ plans for Sicily.
There is always artistic licence in films based on true stories, though I was gratified to discover that Operation Mincemeat‘s London coroner Bentley Purchase, who sounds like an early ’00s indie band, was indeed a real person.
Another name, a famous one, also pops up — which in a wartime deception operating deep in the shadows, peopled by anonymous intelligence officers, is even more of a shock. It’s Ian Fleming, later the creator of suave superspy James Bond, but in 1941 part of the small team behind Operation Mincemeat. His colleagues too are operating at one remove from reality, creating lives and backstories for people who don’t exist, and sometimes for themselves.
I’ll admit I’d been avoiding this one, fully expecting another Colin Firth vehicle where he looks stoic in a Royal Navy-issue jumper. His character, eminent-QC-turned-Lieutenant-Commander Ewen Montagu, is indeed exceedingly stoic on the surface, as he copes with a dead marriage while plotting to trick Hitler with fake papers on a fake officer’s dead body. But both work and his personal life are about to become complicated and messy.
Director John Madden focuses on literal and metaphorical shadows, in a surprisingly funny and gripping war film about war’s imperfect stalwarts. This is shady work, away from the shiny heroism that lifts the spirits of the nation. Ewen and his team work in a gloomy Admiralty basement or walk and talk on London’s dark streets. Much is deservedly murky, brightened with forays into a warmly welcoming private members’ club where they drink and discuss their top secret plans too loudly.
Fleming is not the only writer. It turns out nearly everyone at the Admiralty is writing a novel. His is assumed to be just another pulpy spy story, hiding among all the others being churned out. It ties in beautifully with the plain sight deceptions of Operation Trojan Horse (Mincemeat’s original name), hiding in the chatter, misdirections, deliberately unencrypted messages and allusions which the British are desperately hoping the Germans will pick up on in the “right” way.
Trojan Horse is first championed by the uptight and very upright Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen), a man whose passion for truth leads to growing bitterness at the need for glamorous heroes. The Allies want to invade Sicily, and need a ruse to persuade Hitler to move troops away from the island. The plan centres on a drowned British officer washed up on a Spanish shore, chained to a briefcase containing false letters about a planned Allied operation in Greece. The dead man is allegedly Major Bill Martin, dashing and heroic, with a particularly literate, letter-writing sweetheart back home. In reality Martin is Glyndwr Michael, a troubled homeless man who left Wales to live on London’s streets, before expiring after eating rat poison.
Montagu’s team — inteligence officers Cholmondeley and Fleming (Johnny Flynn), MI5 secretary Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) and secretarial head Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton) — are all clever and capable, yet their plot feels decidedly “least worst option”. Their nemesis is Admiral John Godfrey (a brutally disdainful Jason Isaacs), who is convinced it will fail and cause the deaths of thousands of Allied troops. He pops up through the film, like a stern headmaster, with Ewen and Cholmondeley his chastened schoolboys.
Their plan is so ramshackle that Winston Churchill (Simon Russell Beale, with a perfect Churchillian walk) declares its obviousness its strength. The Germans are more likely to believe it, assuming it to be some kind of double bluff.
Jean and Hester create Bill Martin’s imaginary girlfriend Pam: a snapshot to go in his top pocket and an elegantly heart-wrenching love letter for him to carry. They all revel in creating a whole new life, using their own “best bits”; though the team are split between the women, upfront about who they are and what they have had to settle for, and the men, still struggling with what heroism means.
This is a superb ensemble cast, playing damaged individuals who aren’t averse to turning on each other. Firth is as reliable as ever as the upstanding but also selfish Montagu, a man who almost boasts about his stoic ability to do the right thing, yet also wants to justify his flirtation with Jean.
Still, ultimately this is Macfadyen and Macdonald’s film. He is exceptional as Charles struggles with what it really means to be a living war hero, his pomposity and bitterness threatening to explode just as Admiral Godfrey, the erstwhile villain of this piece, beckons him into the shadows. Macdonald is on top form as the independent yet increasingly frustrated Jean, a widow who has no one. Living her life to the full without falling in love, she’s dragged into the games of a man tiptoeing out to the edges of his marriage.
There’s an army of patrician supporting actors, confusingly many of them looking like royalty. Every time Alex Jennings popped up I thought Edward VIII had returned; Nicholas Rowe should really play Prince Charles at some point.
Thoroughly engrossing and consistently entertaining, Operation Mincemeat juggles unexpected humour and pathos around Glyndwr Michael’s body: the perils of working with a corpse, and the very moving scenes with a nurse as he passes from life to death.
At just over two hours there’s no sag, even as we move from the gloom and tension of London plotting to the almost slapstick events in sunny Spain when Bill Martin finally washes up. The Allies are depending on spies they know to be good and spies they know to be bad, and a decomposing months-old body of a vagrant passing for that of a recently drowned officer of the Crown. Luck favours and mocks them in turn, as they wait for the Nazis to take the bait.
That final third act is hard to follow though. I found myself hoping for a skewering incision akin to the Spanish coroner’s piercing of the corpse’s water-distended stomach.
This may be a story about identity — who we are, and who we claim to be — but Glyndwr Michael remains an enigma, fittingly once you look into the real story of who Bill Martin was, and whether it was actually Michael at all. A useful cadaver who was once a man with hopes and dreams, all presumably unfulfilled, is eventually buried in a foreign land under a different name with full military honours, with an officer’s haircut and a sweetheart.
What happens at the end of the film? Who was Bill Martin? And do we really pronounce Cholmondeley as Chumley? Read my article here.
Watch the Operation Mincemeat trailer: