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Operation Mincemeat review – solid but familiar tale of British wartime courage

Though it could have used a more disciplined edit, this stranger-than-fiction true spy story makes for an easy crowdpleaser

Over the last two years of lockdowns and delays, some major releases seem to have missed their moment to really shine – casualties like Black Widow and The King’s Man immediately spring to mind, expensive tentpoles that were marketed for years on end before being instantly forgotten. This shouldn’t be a problem for Operation Mincemeat. Itself subject to COVID delays – in particular a rather last minute one earlier this year with the advent of Omicron – it’s the sort of story that will always fill a niche for UK moviegoers, a solidly charming World War II caper that pays tribute to British smarts and pluck.

The eponymous operation was one of Britain’s great intelligence coups of the conflict; in 1943, the corpse of a homeless man was dressed up as a drowned Royal Marine and shipped to fascist Spain, carrying false top-secret documents to convince Hitler that the Allies planned to invade Greece, instead of their real target of Sicily. It’s one of those fantastical, stranger-than-fiction stories that often emerge in wartime, one that trades the visceral terror of bombs and bullets for witty remarks in smoky offices and the strange tension of waiting for events to transpire hundreds of miles away.

With the actual outcome of the operation being rather well-known history, director John Madden and writer Michelle Ashford hone in on the more mysterious people who made it happen and the effects of the crushing pressure they were under. At Operation Mincemeat’s heart sits Commander Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth), a Jewish intelligence officer who has sent his already fracturing family away to America to keep them away from the Nazis in case of invasion. Firth does strong work in the lead, showing us a man trying, and sometimes failing, to tamp down his loneliness and get on with the business in hand.

As the backstory for the fake Marine – granted the name William Martin – is planted (complete with love letters, girlfriend pictures, and general mementos), the conspirators start to project themselves onto him, their own memories and regrets becoming his. This process sparks a sort-of romance between Montagu and fellow spy Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), a subplot that is nicely acted but is ultimately rather superfluous. In fact, there are a few stretches of Operation Mincemeat that feel like padding and, at over two hours long, there’s certainly time to spare here.

This time is generally best spent in the company of Matthew Macfadyen, playing the mission’s second-in-command Charles Cholmondely, an RAF officer whose poor eyesight prevents him from actually flying. Cholmondely often means well, but also has a bit of a pathetic and spiteful streak, allowing Macfadyen to channel some of Tom Wambsgan's energy from Succession and the film as a whole really lifts off whenever he’s on screen.

Though it is certainly in need of a more disciplined edit (one that would do away with an in medias res beginning that saps tension from the rest of the story and Johnny Flynn’s dull narration as the voice of Ian Fleming), Operation Mincemeat mostly uses its familiar ingredients for crowd-pleasing results. Packed with fun cameos – including the last screen role of the late, and much-missed, Paul Ritter – there’s a richness to its world that makes up for stolid dialogue and slow stretches, the sort of British period piece that people will be curling up in front of on a Sunday evening for years to come.

Operation Mincemeat is released in UK cinemas on 15 April.

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