Based on a true story, Operation Mincemeat takes place in 1943, during the second World War. The British are planning an invasion of Sicily, both to break Hitler’s hold on Europe and to also knock Italy out of the war. The problem is that the attack on Sicily makes so much strategic sense that the Germans have spent months preparing for it and, even if successful, the invasion will cost an untold number of British lives. Somehow, British intelligence must trick the Germans into thinking that the British are planning to invade Greece instead.
With the help of Lt. Commander Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew McFayden) come up with the plan to fool the Germans. A dead body will be disguised as a British officer. The body will be transported, via submarine, to Spain, which was technically neutral during the war. The body will wash up on shore and, when the body is examined, a note detailing Britain’s invasion of Greece will be discovered and passed along to the Germans. Because the Germans have been fooled by a similar trick in the past, Montagu and Cholmondeley create a fake backstory for “Maj. William Martin” and soon start to think of him as being a someone who truly did live. Joining them to create a life for Major Martin is Jean Leslie (Kelly MacDonald), a secretary in the office who volunteers a photo of herself to be placed in Martin’s wallet.
Of course, things get complicated. While plotting out the operation, Jean starts to fall in love with Montagu, whose marriage is currently strained by Montagu’s obsession with his work. (Because he knows what will happen to a Jewish family in the UK if Germany invades, Montagu has sent his wife and his children to the U.S.) Cholomondeley is in love with Jean and soon finds himself growing jealous of the man that he’s been assigned to work with. Meanwhile, the head of British Intelligence (Jason Isaacs) wants to investigate Montagu’s brother for being a communist. As for Ian Fleming, he keeps himself busy by writing a book. In fact, so many members of British Intelligence are identified as being aspiring novelists that it becomes a bit of a running joke.
I have always appreciated a good World War II film and I enjoyed Operation Mincemeat. It’s a bit of an old-fashioned film, of course. The F-word is used exactly once (which makes this a rarity amongst modern British films) and there’s one scene in which a member of British intelligence discreetly gives an informant a handjob in return for information. Otherwise, this is pretty much a film that you could safely show your grandma without having to worry about her getting depressed over how much movies have changed since her day. Old-fashioned or not, it’s a well-made film, full of good performances and sharp dialogue. It’s not a flashy film but it’s very nicely put together and it’s hard not to admire the craftsmanship responsible for it. Operation Mincemeat is all the more interesting for being, more or less, true. While the love triangle was invented for the film, it is true that Ian Fleming was a part of Operation Mincemeat and the film’s use of him as a character works surprisingly well. The scene where a young Fleming tours the World War II version of Q Branch provides some nice comic relief, particularly when Flemings comes across a wristwatch that doubles as a mini-saw.
What elevates Operation Mincemeat is its theme of loss. Almost all of the major characters have lost someone or something to the war. Jean Leslie is a widow. Cholomendely’s brother was killed in action and his body is still in Europe. Montagu has had to send his family away for their own safety. For them, the Major Martin becomes a stand-in for all of the people that they’ve lost. The effort to make Martin into a real person allows all of them one final chance to honor their loved ones. Major Martin becomes a stand-in for all British soldiers and civilians who sacrificed their lives to battle Hitler’s war machine. Operation Mincemeat becomes about more than just fooling the Germans. It becomes about being worthy of the sacrifice that it took to defeat them.
As is shown in the film, the real Major Martin was a vagrant named Glyndwr Michael, who died after eating rat poison. The film suggests that Michael deliberately killed himself but no one will ever know for sure what led to him eating that poison. After his death, he was given the uniform of a British officer and his pockets were filled with things that would identify him as being Major William Martin. Though he never knew it, Glyndwr Michael become one of the greatest heroes of World War II. Operation Mincemeat serves a worthy tribute to both Glyndwr Michael and Major William Martin.