Operation Ground Meat (12A)
The remarkable story of Operation Mincemeat, the secret World War II plan to trick the Germans into believing that invading Allied forces would land in Greece rather than Sicily, has already been told on the big screen. , in the 1956 film The Man Who Never Was.
But at the time, not all the details of an extraordinary act of subterfuge, which was said to have changed the course of the war, were known.
For example, official secrecy still surrounded the true identity of a corpse dressed in naval uniform and allowed to wash up on the coast of neutral Spain, bearing false papers that British intelligence chiefs hoped they would fall into the hands of German spies. As they duly did.
Johnny Flynn, Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen pictured in new Operation Mincemeat movie
However, we now know the body was that of Glyndwr Michael, a Welshman with mental health issues living in London, who died after eating rotten food containing rat poison.
John Madden’s new film, based on Ben Macintyre’s bestseller of the same name, dramatizes an astonishing sequence of events, beginning with three intelligence officers, Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth), Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) and a certain Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), plotting their plan to deceive Hitler.
Once a corpse of the right age is found and given a new identity – no longer a Welsh tramp but Major William Martin, a heroic Royal Marines officer – Montagu and his team, which also includes the fearsome Hester Leggett ( Penelope Wilton) and MI5 secretary, Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), begin the meticulous process of giving her a comeback story, including a love interest, Pamela.
They know the Germans will check the dead man’s credentials. Every detail must be watertight.
The fierce chief of naval intelligence, Admiral Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), finds the plan foolish.
But Winston Churchill (Simon Russell Beale, reasonably avoiding the impersonation) is willing to do anything to stop the Nazis from anticipating the 1943 Sicily landings.
If they’re ready and waiting, he growls ominously, then “history itself will take its eyes off the slaughter.”
Simon Russell Beale as Winston Churchill and Jason Isaacs as Admiral Godfrey in Operation Mincemeat
And so the scheme unfolds, with the connivance of British consulate staff in Spain, and in the hope that an autopsy there won’t reveal how ‘Bill Martin’ actually died.
Moreover, the deception also depends on the Germans thinking that the British are desperate to retrieve the papers, unseen.
A beautifully prosaic trick, placing a tiny lash in one of Bill’s letters, helps determine if it has been read. The “fate of the free world” depends on this complex game of bluffing and counter-bluffing.
Madden, the director, has an impressive form for portraying a certain kind of Englishman; his credits include The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011).
He is also a master of period drama, with Mrs Brown (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001) to his credit.
This mostly absorbing film represents another firm tick in an illustrious career, even if Michelle Ashford’s script occasionally falls into the trap of characters enlightening audiences rather than each other.
The Sicily landings are “the greatest amphibious assault the war has seen,” says one sailor to another, who I think we can safely assume already knows.
Lorne Macfadyen, Paul Ritter, Matthew Macfadyen and Colin Firth pictured in Operation Mincemeat
I was also unconvinced by an unnecessary subplot, designed to escalate the tension between Montagu and Cholmondeley, who are both chastely in love with Leslie (a rather stiff performance by Macdonald) in creepily 1940s fashion. repressed. See also David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945).
Yet there are so many gripping details in Operation Mincemeat that none of it really matters. Whatever dramatic license was taken, one irrefutable fact remains: that this is an amazing true story.
You’ll notice, if you’ve read Macintyre’s excellent book, that some of the wackier details have even been toned down to make them more believable.
Those who knew the real Cholmondeley, who “looked at the world through thick pebble glasses, behind a remarkable mustache six inches long and waxed into magnificent spikes”, would not necessarily recognize him in the perfectly flat Macfadyen, who yet does his best to present as unhappy and in love.
There’s another lavish ingredient this film shares with The Man Who Never Was: the corpse had to be transported from London to Scotland, where it was put on a submarine bound for Spain, in record time.
To that end, they brought in a top British racing driver, St John Horsfall (Mark Bonnar), to make it happen.
When Ian Fleming, played brilliantly by Flynn and used sporadically here as a narrator, later came to create James Bond, he must have known more than anyone that truth is at least twice as weird as fiction.
Operation Mincemeat opens across the UK on Friday