Operation Mincemeat is precisely the kind of stolid history flick your dad will probably like but which bears little artistry to otherwise meaningfully distinguish itself.
Stories from the halls of power need not all be dull — look no further than Armando Iannucci’s 2017 political satire The Death of Stalin or Andreas Fontane’s Azor for recent films that, in their own very different ways, make conspiracy thrilling. Operation Mincemeat, unfortunately, did not seem to get the memo. Adapted from Ben Macintyre’s book of the same name, John Madden’s latest takes as its subject a crucial, albeit little-known, mission to divert German troops from Sicily at the height of World War 2. The plan? Drop a British-uniform-donning corpse in the ocean with a briefcase full of fake plans for the Allies to invade Greece, with the hope that German spies will find the corpse, relay the false information to Hitler as fact, and leave Sicily undefended. Madden’s cast of spies includes Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, and Kelly Macdonald in starring roles, with a supporting cast including British stalwarts such as Johnny Flynn, Jason Isaacs, Mark Gatiss, Simon Russell Beale, and the late Paul Ritter.
Despite those bona fides, the main problem with Operation Mincemeat is that it seems unable to commit enough to any particular mode to really find its groove. The film is neither satirical, subtle, or thrilling, and, much like its own characters, seems somewhat detached emotionally from the realities of its premise. As such, at its worst, the film ends up occasionally dull if entirely inoffensive, with brief flashes of elegance mixed in. Mincemeat seems to feel most at home in such small, human moments, like when the three central characters wistfully construct a persona for their cargo-laden corpse, but it refuses to ever commit to being a character drama, instead fumbling its way halfheartedly into thriller territory. Madden grasps at interesting themes of narrative and writing during wartime, but never goes beyond mere allusion, and the criminal underutilization of Johnny Flynn in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role as Bond writer Ian Fleming makes the whole subtext feel more like a knowing wink than anything more refined or meaningful. This approach could have yielded a film that nicely balanced high-stakes power struggles with the humanity of the people behind them, but the reality is that Operation Mincemeat’s steadfast focus on upper- and middle-class characters who rarely face the realities of war makes it feel paternalistic, emblematic of England’s attitude to its own history — full of self-congratulatory back-patting and nostalgia for a time of war and global supremacy, all while refusing to address the visceral realities that underpin such misguided romantic notions.
Ultimately, the most appropriate thing that can really be said for Operation Mincemeat is that it’s… fine. Everything about it is so thoroughly stolid that it’s difficult to find much to passionately attack, but it’s equally as hard to muster much praise for something this pro forma. Nobody involved in the film, both in front of and behind the camera, turns in bad work per se, but it’s an undoubtedly middling affair for all parties. Firth’s particular gravitas is always welcome, bringing a striking knottiness to a character that could have been far too straightforwardly honorable, but this element of his performance is relegated to a romantic subplot wherein it’s resolved all too quickly. Similarly, while Matthew Macfadyen elevates his character from a potential nice-guys-finish-last archetype thanks to a well-played streak of nastiness, it’s difficult not to compare his work here with his far superior performance in Succession. It’s the sort of movie that you will only ever really remember if a question about World War II comes up in the history round of a trivia night, and the only reasonable circumstance under which to recommend it to somebody would be if they were in desperate need of an inoffensive movie to watch with their dad. Then again, even if stuck in that scenario, recent release The Duke is probably a better pick for 2022 midlife UK cinema.
You can currently stream John Madden’s Operation Mincemeat on Netflix.