A Second World War accounting of a bold venture, told in the 1956 film “The Man Who Never Was”, gets a skilfully crafted retelling of a corpse that pulled a fast one on Nazi Germany. It chronicles a 1943 British intelligence plan (code-named “Operation Mincemeat”) to deceive the Axis powers into thinking that Allied forces were planning to attack southern Europe by way of Greece or Sardinia, rather than Sicily, as the Nazis assumed, and the Allies ultimately chose.
The deceptive idea was formulated by two men, MI5 agent Charles Cholmondeley and British naval intelligence officer Ewan Montagu. They were a perfect team, though radically different in their personal lives. Cholmondeley was reserved, dreaming of adventure. Montagu was an aristocratic barrister who was detail-oriented. Their idea was to equip a corpse with secret, but false and misleading official looking documents concerning the invasion, then drop the body off the coast of Spain where German spies would, it was hoped, take the bait. The plan was approved by British intelligence officials, including Ian Fleming (creator/author of the James Bond novels). Winston Churchill backed the idea, believing it might ring true to the Nazis and help bring victory to the Allies.
The film’s source is the novel “Operation Mincemeat” in which author Ben Macintyre adds further truths to the legend based on never-before-released material. He treats the reader to a story of spies, double agents, rogues, fearless heroes, and a body, that echoes a John le Carre thriller. It was a rapid page-turner for me.
“Operation Mincemeat” (theatres/Netflix), feels like one of those old-fashioned British stiff upper lip war dramas (“Dunkirk”, “1917”, “The Imitation Game”, “The Darkest Hour”) functioning as a well-crafted period thriller, with side glances to unexpected dark humor, a flag waving homage to unheralded British operatives in wartime.
Veteran John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Debt”) directs this extraordinary adventure, with Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen playing Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley, the unflappable chaps in charge. There are no heroes in this daring escapade. Emphasis centers on values of fortitude and courage, a realism that pushed a nation to pull together, emphasizing the experiences and conduct of individual players without celebrating or minimizing the cost of war.
The corpse (a tramp), was dressed as a fabricated “Capt. William Martin” with detailed dummy “official” military information in his pockets which outlined plans for the hypothetical invasion. “Capt. Martin’s” remains, the presumed result of a plane crash into the sea, would wash up in Spain where the phoney intelligence would be passed to the Germans.
The film has a natural feeling with Firth (tv currently: “The Staircase”), and Macfadyen (tv currently: “Succession”) radiating stalwart character realism. Like the majority of Britain’s acting fraternity, the extensive theatre experience of the pair solidly reflects the uncelebrated heroic stoicism of Britain at war. I have long admired watching British actors on stage and in films, and here, they justify my praise.
A romantic triangle develops between Montagu and Cholmondeley over a young widow (Kelly Macdonald) who allows a photo of herself, and a love letter to be included with the dead man’s effects, giving him a personal insight, while adding to the disinformation intended for the Nazis. The romantic development between the two agents seems somewhat artificial in the atmosphere surrounded by intelligence, counter-intelligence, deception, and spying at the heart of the narrative, though it does add emotion, a captivating catch for viewers.
Director Madden inserts tension into a story based on historical record and entertains, rather than being just an educational documentary. Ewan Montagu, who is very much the focal point of the narrative, is stamped with quiet intensity by Colin Firth whose extensive acting career has elevated him to “star” status. As Charles Cholmondeley, Matthew Macfadyen’s character creates tension between the two in a relationship that holds interest as situations develop.
“Operation Mincemeat” is a gripping account of an improbable plan, a project which became one of the greatest deceptions in World War II involving “THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS”.