Last Updated on June 27, 2022
The best spy stories blur the line between fact and fiction, both for the characters, and for the viewer. They make us wonder who we can trust, and who is merely dressed in a semblance of truth.
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At first glance, “Operation Mincemeat” (2021) doesn’t seem to fit this description. The story–concerning a real Second World War deception the British deployed against the Nazis–is told from the inside out, and we watch counter-espionage operatives design the operation from start to finish. We know who the good guys are.
But the story itself is narrated by Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn, Emma.), a Lieutenant Commander during WWII who would later rise to fame as the creator of James Bond. “What are you writing?” a colleague asks as he types furiously at the climax of the film. “Spy story,” he replies without a trace of a smile.
It’s this wink-and-a-nod narration that adds a layer of delightful uncertainty to what would otherwise be a well executed, but straightforward spy film filled with some of our favorite actors.
In 1943, England is deep into World War II and lawyer Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth, The King’s Speech) is at a crossroads. His wife (Hattie Morahan, My Mother and Other Strangers) has left for America with their children, and he has just joined the Twenty Committee, Britain’s counterespionage unit.
Even though his wife blames his intense work ethic for their rocky marriage, Ewen can’t pass up this opportunity to serve his country.
Churchill (Simon Russell Beale, Vanity Fair), meanwhile, is planning a massive Allied invasion of Sicily. In order to divert Nazi attention from Sicily, the Twenty Committee has been tasked with creating a deception to convince Hitler that the Allies plan to invade Greece, instead.
Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming offers several ideas, and the Committee finally settles on Operation Mincemeat: they’ll plant false documents on a corpse and drop it right into the enemy’s lap. Montagu and grounded RAF pilot Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen, Howards End) will lead the operation, with Fleming as adviser.
Montagu and Cholmondeley set up headquarters with a collection of officers and Bletchley operatives, completed with the addition of Montagu’s devoted secretary, Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton, Downton Abbey), and MI5 secretary Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald, Gosford Park). Over drinks at Montagu’s club, the foursome delight in the lighter aspects of their assignment, planning out their corpse’s invented backstory and his “wallet litter.”
Soon the lighthearted spy craft gives way to a deeper connection between Montagu and Leslie, and while they deny their attraction, others have noticed their growing bond. It’s only a matter of time before members begin to turn against each other, perhaps jeopardizing the entire operation.
Fiction is a convenient cover for Montagu and Leslie’s budding relationship. While ostensibly discussing the romance between their corpse, whom they’ve dubbed Major William Martin, and his imagined girlfriend, Pam, they’re dancing closer to each other, nearly revealing their feelings before reminding themselves that this is work. Cholmondeley grows jealous of their connection, and his frustration adds another layer to the plot.
Fiction is also a weapon. Major Martin, after all, only exists to convince the Nazis of a planned invasion that will never take place on the scale suggested. Director John Madden drives this home with an extended climax, as we watch numerous characters play their parts in the wide-ranging deception.
There’s a battle scene, of course, but the scenes of Mincemeat’s creators waiting anxiously in their offices for news are more nail-bitingly tense. Will their plan succeed? Or will the Nazis see through Major Martin and kill tens of thousands of Allied troops?
And fiction is, finally, a puzzle for the viewer. The film is based on Ben Macintyre’s bestselling history, Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, and it retains a good deal of the true story.
Yet screenplay author Michelle Ashford frames the entire film as a story narrated by Ian Fleming. Yes, in real life Fleming was involved in WWII counterespionage, and yes, he helped develop Operation Mincemeat. But his embellished role here is clearly meant to capitalize on viewers’ knowledge that he would go on to write the fanciful James Bond spy novels.
When Fleming casually refers to the Committee leader as “M,” we’re left wondering if he really used that name or if this is the film’s nod to Bond’s MI6 employer. And when Q-branch demonstrates inventions designed to help operatives, Fleming toys with a wristwatch that turns out to include a miniature buzzsaw, foreshadowing the fantastical gadgets Bond will use. Did Q-branch really design a buzzsaw watch, or is the film toying with us?
It’s a delightful conceit that adds a layer of mystery to an already unbelievable–but real–plot. Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.
At the time of this writing, “Operation Mincemeat” (2021) is available to stream on Netflix.
Watch the trailer below.
Abby Murphy writes young adult books about girls discovering their strengths. A member of SCBWI and The Historical Novel Society, she is represented by Laura Crockett of Triada US Literary Agency. You can visit her blog here, where she writes about reading, writing, history, and her incurable Anglophilia.
If you enjoyed this post, wander over to The Period Films List. You’ll especially like the Best Period Dramas: Interwar Era list. For more period-set British spy thrillers, you’ll also want to see The Ipcress File, and our review of Restless. And don’t miss Munich: The Edge of War, and our review of “The Courier” (2020), and Period Dramas Starring Colin Firth.
J. NETONAugust 9, 2022 at 12:27 am (8 months ago)
VERY REMISS OF YOU NOT TO MENTION THAT THIS STORY WAS MADE INTO AN AWESOME MOVIE AROUND 1956 OR SO TITLED, “THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS, ” IT STARRED THE MARVELOUS CLIFTON WEBB. WONDERED WHY YOU DID NOT INCLUDE THIS FACT IN YOUR REVIEW???Reply