Synopsis: During WWII, British Intelligence comes up with a plan to deceive Nazi Germany on battle plans. (Streaming on Netflix as of May 19, 2022)
Operation Mincemeat the movie has a lot of moving parts, owing to the fact that the actual Operation Mincemeat had a lot of moving parts. In 1943 British Intelligence was hard at work during WWII, collecting intel on the battle plans of the Axis powers (Germany, Italy & Japan). The Twenty Committee ran spies. Their moniker was a reference to Roman numeral twenty, XX… as in double cross.
Operation Mincemeat drops us into London in the beginning of 1943. Of course, we know that you can’t get much more serious than a world war, but the movie bangs us over the head with the import of the times. The score is dark and heavy from the get-go; maybe save that for the eve of an invasion. Everyone is dressed in grey, except the men in Navy blue. I know that the Great Depression preceded the war, but I have to believe that at least somebody in London had a yellow tie or a red hat.
The voiceover, by a young Ian “James Bond” Fleming, natters on about things above, beyond and within the war’s actions: a “war of shadows.” We get it already: Espionage. Maybe I was a little overconfident due to having binged the MI-5 series which followed Britain’s (made-up) national security agents and their cases. Following spies and their missions was easy enough.
But by 1943, British Intelligence wasn’t just involved in espionage, but was also neck-deep in counterespionage. The Twenty Committee turned Nazi agents and had them feed disinformation back to Germany. Fortunately for Britain, it wasn’t uncommon for German spies to make mistakes or to have convinced their superiors that they were Nazis, only to turn themselves in as soon as they came ashore in England. This is surprising to me. Hard to imagine someone cut from the same Teutonic cloth as, say, Angela Merkel, having such a lackadaisical attitude.
Anyway, besides ferreting out German spies (no news on Italian spies–they may have been unable to tolerate English food) and running double agents, the Twenty Committee began creating deception operations.
I thought Operation Mincemeat would involve D-Day deceptions, but the Allied landings in Normandy were in 1944, codenamed Operation Neptune. Operation Mincemeat was designed to mislead the Nazis about Operation Husky, the planned invasion of Sicily. The Allies needed to convince the Germans that they would be landing in Greece. The team has their work cut out for them.
While sitting around coming up with codenames for the various plans sounds fun, I can imagine having a blinding headache by the end of the day trying to remember what was the truth or not. People always ooh and ahh over former intelligence staff members keeping their real job titles a secret. I think half of the people got confused with who they were working for and whether they were, say, procuring Navy supplies or just pretending to procure Navy supplies.
Colin Firth is Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, a lawyer who became a Naval Intelligence officer. Ah, yes, the quintessential Mr. Darcy (from the 1995 BBC production). We can count on him. Upping our odds for success, another Mr. Darcy is added; Matthew Macfadyen of the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice. MacFadyen is Charles Cholmondeley, a former flight lieutenant in the RAF, whose surname has the unphonetic pronunciation of ‘Chumley.’ This probably helps to confuse people as to who he actually is– Ah, you’d get along with my friend Cholmondeley, he sounds a lot like a chap I know, Chumley. “Both” have a real straitlaced desk jockey look going on, what with a bushy ‘stache and thick-rimmed glasses.
With Montagu as chair of the Twenty Committee and Cholmondeley as secretary, they cook up a deception scheme that centers on planting false documents on a corpse. Ewww. Alas, desperate times, desperate measures.
They obtain the body of Glyndwr Michael, a homeless man who killed himself with rat poison. The body is put on ice and the team set about constructing a false identity while typing up Most Secret papers detailing a planned invasion of Greece.
Enter, Jean Leslie, a clerk, fluent in French, whose duties included surmising reports. IRL, Jean was just twenty years old, but here, she is played by a more mature Kelly MacDonald (the Grey Lady from Harry Potter!). Montagu and Cholmondeley want to include a love letter and girlfriend photo in the fake “Major William Martin”(s) pockets. Jean gets onboard and offers a photo.
Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) reported that he didn’t want the movie to just be a procedural, so he created a love triangle with Colin Firth (Montagu), Tom MacFayden (Cholmondeley) and Kelly MacDonald’s (Leslie) characters.
Montagu’s family is Jewish so he has sent his wife and children to America in case the Nazis make inroads to England. Hmm, convenient. While Cholmondeley has a quiet crush on Jean Leslie. But, dash it all!, for him because she begins to develop an attraction for the married man. After all, they are spending plenty of time together in and out of the office creating a backstory for the corpse. It seems the British, not necessarily known for their joie de vivre, dealt with their stress by partying — off to the cinemas and dancing clubs. One night they even go out for drinks while keeping their eyes open for a man who might pass in life as their fake Major Martin — they want a photo for his military ID.
The whole plan hinges on the body, once outfitted with fake documents, to be dumped in the ocean and wash up in Spain and be discovered, retrieved and have the documents noted by the neutral Spanish, which are in turn stolen by Nazi spies. Phew! A lot could go wrong and they emphasize that the deception must be perfect to fool Nazi “General Yodel.” Or that’s how I heard it. This may be the same guy who persecuted the Von Trapp family in The Sound of Music!
They have help along the way; including a Scottish race car driver, a diplomat who manually pleasures a woman and then a man to coax them into compliance (he’s v serious about what he must do for King & Country), the wise boss who is Lucious Malfoy (Draco’s HP dad/ actor Jason Isaacs), a crackerjack secretary who is Isobel Crawley of Downton Abbey fame (actor Penelope Wilton, her son was the sexy Matthew embodied by Dan Stevens), and, around the edges, Mark Gatiss of Dr Who & Sherlock fame, who is possibly spy by the name of Ivor. But probably not. IRL, one of the reasons that the former British Communist Ivor was a suspect was because he traveled internationally to watch table tennis. Intelligence personnel figured no one could really be a table tennis fan.
Well! There you have it– a lot of moving parts. The Allies did win the war (yay), so you are probably figuring Operation Mincemeat was a success. But how exactly they did it is intriguing. Even if no one from The Sound of Music got involved.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Very interesting spycraft with a lukewarm love triangle.
Humor Highlight: The levity in the crew’s working nights out.