24 Lies a Second: Minced Spies

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Minced Spies

Given the sheer volume of films celebrating the achievements of plucky little Britain during the years of the Second World War, you might be forgiven for reaching the conclusion that the cupboard of history is bare, the well is dry, everything has been done –   Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, Enigma, The Imitation Game, The Gathering Storm, Into the Storm, Atonement, and that's just from this century alone. Surely the British war movie industry is on the verge of finally running out of steam?

Well, maybe not: for here comes John Madden's Operation Mincemeat, which has managed to identify one of the few incidents from the war not yet brought to the screen: a feat of misdirection brought about in the weeks and months leading up to the invasion of Sicily in Summer 1943. Quite apart from allowing the Allies to open a new front in the European war, the assault on Sicily is of significance as essentially being a test-run for the Normandy landings planned for the following year.

Of paramount importance is the need to keep the Nazis guessing as to what the Allies are up to – which leads to the involvement of a top-secret committee made up of members of the different armed services, with the objective of misdirecting German intelligence. Recently seconded to the group is lawyer-turned-intelligence-officer Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth); also present is RAF officer Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen). Overseeing proceedings, and basically providing an authority figure for the protagonists to kick against heroically, is Jason Isaacs as the chairman of the committee; Johnny Flynn occasionally pops up as a junior naval intelligence bod named Ian Fleming.

The idea is to get the Germans looking at Greece as the main prospective target of the Allied attack, rather than Sicily, and the scheme that Montagu and Cholmondeley cook up is to sell this idea by putting fake plans for the Greek attack on an actual corpse, which they then dump at sea somewhere it will be washed up and found by someone sympathetic to the Nazi cause. For this they need to find an appropriate corpse, then all the relevant details must be attended to, and their superiors convinced that this gambit is going to work – get it wrong, and the Germans will know exactly where the Allied taskforce is heading...

Also on the team are doughty office manager Hester (Penelope Wilton) and office worker Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), and together they begin putting the deception together. The film makes it clear that this was one of the most spectacularly successful pieces of misdirection in military history, and it has already been the subject of one movie (1956's The Man Who Never Was, in which Ewen Montagu himself made a cameo appearance) – but I can see how a film looking in detail at how the trick was pulled would seem like a good idea and have a decent chance of finding an audience.

The problem with Operation Mincemeat is that John Madden and scriptwriter Michelle Ashford seem to have set their sights on a more ambitious target than simply detailing one particular intelligence operation. Instead of just making a true-life spy thriller, they also have a go at making a doomed wartime romance, a drama about the personal relationships and conflicts between a group of Admiralty spies, a slightly tongue-in-cheek romp playing with some of the conventions of British espionage fiction, and... you get the idea.

Madden is probably still best remembered for Shakespeare in Love, a rich, discursive, sprawling tapestry of a movie which worked on many different levels. In a sense it was about the whole cultural impact of Shakespeare, and naturally carried with it the opportunity for many different tones. This is, in theory at least, a somewhat more serious movie about one particular Second World War intelligence operation, and so it doesn't naturally lend itself to the same kind of approach.

Perhaps this explains the distinct sense of the movie being almost a patchwork quilt made up of fragments of different script drafts, which sometimes feels like it's dragging its feet a bit just to get up to an appropriately 'epic' running time. It's not as if the central spine of the narrative isn't filled with fascinating and occasionally macabre detail: the first thing the team have to do is lay their hands on a corpse who could conceivably have drowned, and then ensure he is – for want of a better word – deployed before the natural processes of decay become too far advanced. Later on there is a desperate attempt to ensure the faked battle plans actually do cross the path of a German agent in Spain (the natural inclination of the principled Spanish is to give the papers straight back, unread). There could be a good, taut, interesting movie here.

Splicing onto this extended scenes in which Montagu and Leslie effectively carry on a relationship-by-proxy while working out the details of the love life of their non-existent dead officer and his equally ontologically-challenged girlfriend changes the film's whole centre of balance, especially when it becomes clear that Cholmondeley's objection to this kind of office fraternisation is not entirely disinterested. Suddenly the whole issue of the deception operation feels like it's been pushed into the background of a film which is actually about the complicated personal lives of some work colleagues, and each new subplot and character only contributes to this further – there's a subplot about Montagu's slightly feckless brother (Sam Kisgart) possibly being a Russian spy, some quite high-level political intrigue about the possible existence of an anti-Hitler movement within the upper echelons of the Nazi administration, and even some in-jokey wink-wink stuff that felt a bit tired to me – there's a lot of knowing material about Ian Fleming trotting down to Q Branch and playing with a watch that's secretly a buzzsaw, while Matthew Macfadyen (veteran of a 19-episode run in TV's Spooks) gets some equally arch dialogue about the 'spooks' he's working with and the nature of their activities.

Little of this is flat-out bad, but the cumulative effect of it all is to slow the film down and make it seem bloated – what feels like it should be a 100-minute movie at most eventually clocks in at over two hours. Operation Mincemeat isn't focused or innovative enough to really stand out in what is, as noted, a rather crowded marketplace (they seem to have run out of new actors to play Churchill and so Simon Russell Beale reprises a role he's previously played on TV). The story at the heart of this project is an undeniably fascinating one, but the problem is that Operation Mincemeat too often feels preoccupied with other matters. Predictably solid performances from a quality cast, but this feels several drafts away from a script which would be worthy of their talents.

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