Director – John Madden – 2021 – UK – Cert. 12a – 127m
The British WW2 deception involving a corpse and fake documents to make Germany think the Allies are landing in Greece rather than Sicily – out in cinemas on Friday, April 15th
At the height of World War II, the Allies plan a mass landing at Sicily. They want the Germans to think it’s going to happen in Greece to reduce Allied casualties. In a Whitehall Admiralty basement operates the Twenty Committee, so-called after its initials XX (or double-cross) and its work managing double or triple agents (this work of the committee isn’t really alluded to in the film although a British triple agent appears later on and plays a fairly important part in the plot, which will include some racy if subtly understated physical sexual activity). On the floors above are top brass Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs) and his assistant Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), the latter devouring novels and constantly bashing out prose on his typewriter in every spare moment.
The office in the basement itself is run with a rod of iron by the fearsome Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton) while the Committee’s top man is Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth), a former Old Bailey lawyer whose friends believe to be in charge of naval supplies. Godfrey, described at one point as only happy when ruining something somewhere, has cut a deal with Montagu’s colleague Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”) (Matthew Macfadyen) to report on Montagu since he believes the latter’s brother Ivor (Mark Gatiss, who only appears briefly) may be a Communist sympathizer.
A plan is hatched: codename Operation Mincemeat. A dead body will wash ashore on the Spanish coast carrying documents to convince the Nazis the landing will be in Greece not Sicily. When a suitable corpse is found, photographing it for official identity documents results in thoroughly unsuitable, zombie-like photos, so instead, a real life candidate who’ll both agree to be photographed and whose face will pass for that of the corpse must be found. So too must a photograph of the girl who represents the corpse’s sweetheart, to which end Jean Leslie (a feisty Kelly Macdonald) offers a picture of herself in exchange for a place on the committee. She proves invaluable, for instance finding a suitable man who. agrees to be photographed. She is initially approached by Cholmondeley who is more than professionally taken with her, but she isn’t interested and must consistently rebut his advances.
Her attraction to Ewen Montagu is a different story, but he already has a wife and child (albeit moved to America for their own safety while he remains in London to serve King and Country). The unconsummated romance between Jean and Ewen as they attend a one-on-one meetings and talk as they walk back to her lodgings at night provide a fascinating glimpse into a romantic and moral value system that held sway eighty years ago.
Equally fascinating is the glimpse into the early writing forays of Ian Fleming, years before he created James Bond. The opening voice over, for instance, has Johnny Flynn describe the war which is visible with bombs and bullets and the other war which cannot be seen, played out in deceptions. While much of the action takes place in the basement, Fleming (like his Admiralty boss) is very much a minor figure in the drama here, but a key one nevertheless. Indeed, he is the one who comes up with the original ruse for the corpse, backing it up in meetings so that the powers that be give it the go ahead.
The story was filmed once before as The Man Who Never Was (Ronald Neame, 1956) based on the 1953 book of the same name by Ewen Montagu. Neither Fleming nor Ivor Montagu (the latter a significant figure in 1920s and 1930s British film culture) appear in that film.
Although much of Operation Mincemeat takes place in the offices and streets of wartime London, its snapshot of Fleming’s “war which cannot be seen” makes for compelling viewing.
Operation Mincemeat is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, April 15th.