PLOT: The true story of Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth), who came up with a wild scheme involving a dead body and false documents to disguise the Allied Invasion of Sicily in WW2.
REVIEW: Operation Mincemeat is a different kind of WW2 spy thriller. There are no gunfights or chases, but the stakes couldn’t be higher, with millions of lives at stake, all of which hinge on a fanciful plot that’s so wild that if it were fiction, people would say it’s too unbelievable. However, Operation Mincemeat did indeed happen, where some officers specializing in deception came up with an incredible plot. They found a dead body, planted false documents stating that the Allies would invade Greece (disguising that they were actually going to invade Sicily), and ejected it from a submarine in the hopes that the Nazis would find the body with the documents on it. They hoped that the Nazis would be fooled into thinking the plans were genuine. It’s a crazy spy tale from WW2 and, according to this lavish Netflix production, may have helped inspire the creation of James Bond.
The movie is narrated by 007’s creator, Ian Fleming, played here as a dashing, Bondian-officer by Johnny Flynn. He’s an aide to Jason Isaacs’s head of MI5, who Fleming refers to as M, and they even have a department for gadgets that they all call Q-Branch. Indeed, Fleming did work for MI5 during the war, and he’s one of several ex-spies that became best-selling authors of spy fiction in the post-war period (including John le Carré). In Operation Mincemeathe mainly serves as comic relief, with an occasional wink at the audience hinting at further (fictional) spy adventures to come.
As crazy as the premise of Operation Mincemeat is, it did happen and was made into another film in the 1950s called The Man Who Never Was. Colin Firth takes center stage as the legendary Ewen Montagu, a Jewish officer who’s shown to have a keen interest in spy fiction, with him being introduced reading The Thirty-Nine Steps to his son. Given his religious affiliation, his family’s been sent to America. At the same time, he stays behind, posing as a menial bureaucrat to, in part, fool his live-in brother, who we’re told is a communist who may be spying for the Russians. This puts Montagu under the suspicion of Isaacs’s M figure, who thinks the plot is nonsense. However, it finds a powerful champion in Winston Churchill (played here by Simon Russell Beale).
Firth plays his part to perfection, with Montagu a refreshingly easy-going officer and not quite as stiff-necked as one might assume. The film’s heart revolves around his relationship with his three closest colleagues, Matthew Macfadyen’s Charles, Kelly Macdonald’s Jean and Penelope Wilton’s Hester. Macdonald’s Jean is a young war widow that Montagu has a lot in common with and relishes the plot, making things tense with Charles, who has a crush on her. Charles is shown to have a massive chip on his shoulder, being a grounded RAF pilot (due to his poor eyesight) whose heroic older brother is presumed dead.
For those American audiences who may mostly know Macfayden for Succession, he plays a different kind of character, being warm-hearted and loyal to Montagu, even after Isaac’s M tries to convince him that he’s a spy. I think we’re used to seeing him as duplicitous, but Macfayden has a lot of range. Macdonald is also intensely likeable as Jean, who has a thing for the married, easy-going and charismatic Montagu. Penelope Wilton comes close to stealing the show as Montagu’s devoted personal secretary, who serves as a pseudo mother figure to the who group.
Operation Mincemeat is a classy production done on a lavish scale by director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love). It got a theatrical release in the UK, and were the outlook for smaller scaled adult dramas different post-COVID probably would have gotten one here too. There’s pretty much no action at all, but it’s still a thrilling spy flick that shines a lot on perhaps the greatest large-scale deception of the war. It’s an excellent addition to Netflix and a must-watch for history buffs and 007 fans, who will be tickled by all of the references. It’s a fun yarn that’s just crazy enough to be true.