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Review: Operation Mincemeat (2020)

Along with the atrocities of the Second World War came a total distrust of how we as humanity can communicate with each other. In that vein, Operation Mincemeat opens with the idea that there is a ‘seen’ war and a ‘hidden’ war. This duality between seen and unseen, between trust and distrust, and ultimately between hero and villain, is perhaps what this biographical war drama truly aims to showcase – and it achieves this to varying degrees of success.

Along with the atrocities of the Second World War came a total distrust of how we as humanity can communicate with each other. In that vein, Operation Mincemeat opens with the idea that there is a ‘seen’ war and a ‘hidden’ war. This duality between seen and unseen, between trust and distrust, and ultimately between hero and villain, is perhaps what this biographical war drama truly aims to showcase – and it achieves this to varying degrees of success.  

Directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and based on historian Ben Macintyre’s book of the same name, Operation Mincemeat is about a British war operation in 1943 to trick the Nazis into believing that the British were invading Greece instead of Sicily. The film primarily follows a trio of Ewan Montagu (Colin Firth), Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) and Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) as they work together to execute a highly fallible decoy. That fallible decoy was falsified documents for ‘the invasion of Greece’ on a corpse and ensuring that those falsified documents infiltrated the Nazi chain of command. This plan, aptly titled ‘operation mincemeat’ - due to the use of a corpse - is a historical story of daring deception despite the immense stakes of the Second World War. 

Operation Mincemeat offers its viewers some philosophical queries, a few historical figures of note, and the occasional twist and turns to fill in its 128-minute runtime. Of those philosophical queries, the most dominant one is also the most obvious regarding war: Are our actions moral? We see that morality clearly in the dualities present in the film. There always seems to be a right side and a wrong side, but in reality, consequences always exist in-between. Is it okay to take a corpse from their next of kin in service of your country? Was operation mincemeat a success if soldiers still died on the beaches of Sicily?

The characters of Montagu and Cholmondeley best convey these competing and often unclear moral dualities. Despite Cholmondeley referring to his working relationship with Montagu as operating under “one mind”, we often see them debating over the ethical obligations of their actions. They are both also bound and contrasted by their relationships with their brothers, one a British war hero, the other a suspected Russian spy. In these comparisons, which are thoroughly taut throughout the film, Operation Mincemeat at least provokes the question of these varying moralities – but only if its viewers wish to grapple with these conundrums themselves. On the other side of the coin, Operation Mincemeat also presents a rather elementary and spoon-fed love triangle between the characters of Jean Leslie, Cholmondeley, and Montagu. This love triangle does nothing more than colour in the main characters' personal lives and acts as a further point of tedious tension. In the face of the Second World War’s great moral quandaries and the unimaginably brutal demonstrations of our fragile mortalities, I wonder if this mediocre love triangle is a genuine attempt to remind us of love lost or ensure that there is some romantic entanglement to fill a commercial quota. Unfortunately, regardless of the filmmakers’ intentions, it felt like the latter.

Regarding historical figures of note, the dramatic incarnation of Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), who famously created the James Bond spy novel series, was at first an enjoyable surprise. Fleming was a naval intelligence officer who was closely involved with operation mincemeat. The film takes every opportunity to draw connections between the spies of this world and the espionage of Bond. However, after some time, the repeated half-winked mentions of ‘M’ and ‘Q’ (terms familiar to the ‘MI6’ of Bond) and the shots of Fleming vigorously typing away as he writes his first “spies” novel become a little tiresome. That being said, this film knows its audience, and in return, I expect that its audience will enjoy most of the allusions to Fleming’s factual inclusion in the story.

The other historical figure of note who assuredly appears is Winston Churchill (Simon Russell Beale). Beale’s recreation of Churchill does the trick to further the narrative, and it certainly isn’t a bad performance. Still, it felt like the film was relying too much on the mythologising of these ‘esteemed’ British men such as Churchill and Fleming. Not to mention that we have been inundated with other countless Churchill dramatisations in the last half-decade (The Darkest Hour and Churchill come to mind), so perhaps my guard is up. That being said, I’m not sure if any of the performances from Operation Mincemeat will be that memorable. Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, and the ensemble cast, without fuss, simply and purely convey the narrative, and that’s okay. After all, the nature of this narrative makes Operation Mincemeat an interesting tale. This can be extended to Madden’s directing and Michelle Ashford’s screenplay, which was perfectly perfunctory without necessarily being bad. However, whoever thought ‘Operation Mincemeat’ would be a commercially attractive title is most likely wrong. A challenging task perhaps when the 1956 film about operation mincemeat (based on the 1953 book by Montagu himself) was enigmatically called ‘The Man Who Never Was’.

Despite how tempting it is to poke at Operation Mincemeat’s lack of cinematic invention, it still tells a story and tells it well. If you so wish to grapple with our morality or lack thereof as we entangle ourselves amidst deceptions of love and war, then this film certainly offers an avenue. If you so wish to watch a war drama on a lazy Sunday afternoon, spearheaded by the reliable gravitas of Colin Firth, then this film also certainly meets expectations. It is as one-dimensional as its eponymous title suggests and as straight arrowed as its marketing promotes. And I don’t think that it needs to be much else. 

Operation Mincemeat will be nationally released in cinemas on May 12th.

 
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