Operation Mincemeat debuts on Netflix on May 11, 2022.
World War II drama Operation Mincemeat takes its title from a real-life ploy: In 1943, British Intelligence tried to convince the Nazi regime that they planned to invade Greece, rather than Sicily, by planting fake documents on the corpse of a tramp they dressed as a British Marine. One of the masterminds behind this plot happened to be Ian Fleming, who would go on to create the character known as 007, James Bond. The story of the operation practically writes itself — and yet, the movie by director John Madden ends up completely scattered. Its attention darts in a dozen directions, none of which feel remotely focused. The result isn’t so much a single film as it is a handful of ideas for wildly different ones, all smashed together with reckless abandon and a near-total lack of intrigue.
Despite its basis in real events, there’s an inherent absurdity to the plot, which Operation Mincemeat doesn’t seem to recognize. The folks behind its marketing certainly do — the trailer is cut as if it were a satire by Armando Iannucci — but the film has a dour, straight-faced tone that rarely matches the bizarre events on screen. Worse yet, its cast of characters (each played by stellar performers) seem to be playing stilted straight-men to no comedians in particular. They’re saddled with little by way of meaningful drama, despite constant gestures towards something important happening in their lives as they carve the bones of the operation.
This is, in part, because the production can’t seem to land on what it’s actually about. It opens with gloomy voiceover from Fleming (Johnny Flynn) about the nature of war and deception, but despite his recurring presence, Fleming himself is a mere observer, peeking in from the corners of a handful of scenes while hinting at which elements of the world around him will eventually form the basis for characters like M and Q. The film is not, however, about the creation of James Bond, despite using it as a framing device (complete with the sounds of a typewriter each time text appears on screen). It certainly doesn’t have enough charm or energy to feel at all Bond-like.
The next best option is to be about the people who executed Fleming’s vision. Col. Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth), a Jewish Naval officer on the verge of divorce, heads the operation alongside former flight lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) — pronounced “Chumly” — and the duo is eventually joined by desk clerk Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), for whom they both develop feelings. This romantic subplot is spun mostly wholecloth by screenwriter Michelle Ashford (the book from which it was adapted, by author Ben Macintyre, has hints about flirtation at best), but it forms the basis for a narrative approach that proves initially alluring.
In order to make the corpse seem legitimate, Montagu, Cholmondeley, and Leslie begin spinning a deep backstory for the fictitious soldier. They name him Bill, and they name his fiancé Pam; “Bill” even carries a picture of Pam in his breast pocket, which happens to be a photo of Leslie. As the trio crafts Bill and Pam’s story in detail, they begin to pour more of themselves into the tale, living vicariously through the starry-eyed couple as they wrestle with the disappointments in their personal lives, resulting in scenes where Montagu and Leslie discuss the unreal romance as if they were speaking about themselves. Cholmondeley is left a jealous third party, leading to some pettiness, but this all plays out in its own corner of the film, seemingly disconnected from the overall plot, which chugs along from objective to objective as the operation draws near.
The film utterly fails to take advantage of the fact that its two leading men have played arguably the two hottest and most charming on-screen Mr. Darcys (not to mention the two wettest; who can forget Firth emerging from a lake in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries, or Macfadyen confessing in the rain in the 2004 Joe Wright movie?) It wastes its high-caliber cast and then some, placing Firth and Macdonald in tensionless scenes, in which sparks are implied through dialogue, but completely absent in the staging and blocking. Its supremely British will-they-won’t-they subplot, about two characters who seem to want to act on their feelings but are bound by societal ideals, is a drag when it comes at the cost of the wartime story, and it turns not only the otherwise remarkable Firth into an empty husk, but the equally brilliant Macdonald into a one-note bore.
On one hand, it makes sense that Macfadyen would be something of a slimy, insecure anti-Darcy, given Cholmondeley’s role in this plot — his part is simply to observe; Leslie has no feelings for him whatsoever — but if the Montagu-Leslie story is fictitious to begin with, then why introduce the shadow of a love triangle without having it materialize in the slightest? Why rope three major characters into a predicament that simply peters out, rather than causing complicated sparks that put the mission in jeopardy? Why dramatize, but only ever so slightly, and in a manner that has no bearing on anything else?
Before long, the love triangle ceases to be a focus at all, and the story that overtakes it — about assembling one of the most absurd plans in World War II history — is just as much of a chore to witness. While it may seem strange to suggest that a story set in one of the darkest periods in modern history ought to have been more whimsical, there is, in fact, a case to be made based on the images themselves. As the film zips forward between events (in almost bullet-point fashion), Thomas Newman’s thoughtful, emotionally heavy score — one that works in isolation — drags down the energy of what seems to be edited in the form of zippy montages meant to build to moments of absurdity surrounding the handling of the corpse and the creation of its story. It’s the wrong kind of music for a film that’s edited like a heist caper, just as the performances are all (mostly) ill-fitting. Macfadyen seems to be the exception for the most part; his perturbed reactions and confused expressions hint at him having fully understood what kind of movie he’s in.
Then again, this only applies to his section of the movie, where he’s caught up in spinning a ludicrous tale while dealing with romantic rejection and ruffled feathers. Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton, who plays supporting character Hester Leggett — another intelligence officer involved in the operation — is just as brilliant in her thoughtful, melodramatic part, in which she pours her deepest desires and regrets into the correspondence between the fictitious Pam and Bill. There’s a moment where the camera lingers on her as one of these letters is read aloud, and the music swells, and she seems to tell decades of her character’s story through withheld silence. It represents the subplot about authorship and pouring oneself into one’s creations reaching its absolute emotional apex, but the film never gets this thoughtful again, and never again does its focus return to this idea.
Beyond a point, everything in Operation Mincemeat feels like a subplot, including its overarching tale of deceiving the Nazis. Each story feels in service of itself, rather than a larger plot or theme, and their tonal disconnects — both between each other, and within themselves — yield a mess of a movie where few ideas approach fruition. It makes one of the most amusing chapters in 20th century history feel like homework.