Some coarse language and innuendo
Occasionally you hear a tale that is so fantastic – so ridiculously outrageous – that you would mock its absurdity if you didn’t already know it to be true. This is one of those stories.
What, after all, would any right-thinking person say in response to a wartime subterfuge plot that includes a dead homeless man dressed as an officer of the Royal Marines, with an invented background, carrying fake documents, in order to deceive the Nazis? Oh, and that the idea for the plan probably came from Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond?
Ridiculous. But all absolutely true.
Operation Mincemeat revisits a story that first appeared onscreen in the 1956 film The Man Who Never Was, only now, much more information can be included – whether it’s from declassified documents or the lives of the men and women involved.
It’s early 1943 and the Allies are planning an assault on Sicily. Everyone knows it, including the enemy. So what can they do? In the interest of saving thousands of lives and hopefully shortening the war, the secret service looks for a way for convince Hitler that the plan is to attack Greece instead.
The body-in-the-water idea is only one of many under consideration, but Winston Churchill (Simon Russell Beale) is keen on it, so a group is set up to flesh out the plan, so to speak. Led by Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen), “Room 13” invents Major William Martin and, day after day, weaves an extraordinarily detailed life for him that they hope will prove impervious to investigation.
All the staff enter into the Major Martin “story” with gusto, particularly pretty widow Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) and the married Montagu – creating many knowing looks among other women in the office.
But the greatest subterfuge of all needs to take place around the body itself: finding one that’s of the right age, appropriate for death by drowning and keeping it from decay long enough to bring the plan to fruition.
So many things could have gone so disastrously wrong with Operation Mincemeat that it’s extraordinary the plan was approved at all. Yet it shows how desperate the British were, more than three years into the war, to get the upper hand on the Nazis.
The film is smartly scripted by Michelle Ashford with a delicate balance of humour, intrigue and drama. She also cleverly provides us with occasional narrative from Johnny Flynn, whose Fleming sits almost constantly at a typewriter, cigarette in hand, exuding just the right mix of worldly cynicism and boys’ own enthusiasm.
The ensemble cast fully inhabits their world, and so carry you along with them as they try to ensure the German authorities are convinced of their elaborate lie in time to prevent a massacre. It’s fascinating, entertaining and occasionally unsettling viewing – particularly as a little research suggests that, apart from the occasional dramatic embellishment (some of which I did find unrealistically annoying), the story we’re told is pretty close to the truth.
As ever, real stories truly are stranger than fiction.