Review: 'Operation Mincemeat' will jolt you with surprises you don't see coming

Sometimes a shamelessly retro wartime romance is all the escape you need.

May 13, 2022, 4:02 AM
PHOTO: Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley, Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu and Johnny Flynn as Ian Fleming in a scene from "Operation Mincemeat."
Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley, Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu and Johnny Flynn as Ian Fleming in a scene from "Operation Mincemeat."
Giles Keyte/See-Saw Films/Courtesy of Netflix

Sometimes a smart, suspenseful, shamelessly retro wartime romance is all the escape you need. The fact that it’s true is icing on the cake. So stream over to Netflix, where “Operation Mincemeat” works magic as a WW2 adventure about the Brits putting one over on Hitler.

Colin Firth, the “King’s Speech” Oscar winner currently playing devilishly against type as the wicked murder suspect on “The Staircase, ” leads a perfect cast as Commander Ewen Montagu, an officer and gentleman with an outlandish plan to turn a corpse into a war hero.

PHOTO: Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu and Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley in a scene from "Operation Mincemeat."
Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu and Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley in a scene from "Operation Mincemeat."
Giles Keyte/See-Saw Films via Courtesy of Netflix

His partner in the deception is Royal Air Force Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley, played by Matthew Macfadyen, the delicious, Cousin Greg-needling Tom Wambsgans on “Succession.” The two practice to deceive the German high command with the help of fellow intelligence officer Ian Fleming (yes, the James Bond creator himself, acted with sly wit by Johnny Flynn).

The plan, nicknamed Operation Mincemeat after Operation Trojan Horse was thought too on the nose, is daringly ingenious: Find a dead soldier’s body and plant it with misleading military documents to fool the Nazis into thinking the Allied point-of-attack is Greece, and not Sicily.

Unorthodox? To say the least. But Ewen and Charles keep pushing, using the corpse of a homeless person, dubbed Captain William Martin, and providing the courier who never was with a backstory that even German agents might see the truth in its very improbability.

It’s a daunting task, requiring months of plotting. Co-conspirators include the department’s Helen Leggett (a superb Penelope Wilton), who pens a love letter for the captain And then there’s an office worker, the widowed Jean Leslie (a funny, touching Kelly Macdonald), who poses for a photo with the dressed corpse to add plausibility to the trickery.

There are many variables. How can the Allies be sure that Hitler’s forces will even find the body of the courier floating in the sea, much less believe the documents and photos in his possession? Look, it happened, so let truth be your guide through the nail-biting tension.

PHOTO: Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley, Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu and Johnny Flynn as Ian Fleming in a scene from "Operation Mincemeat."
Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley, Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu and Johnny Flynn as Ian Fleming in a scene from "Operation Mincemeat."
Giles Keyte/See-Saw Films/Courtesy of Netflix

And the love triangle that pivots around Ewen and Charles both falling for Jean works like a charm because screenwriter Michelle Ashford never strains credulity by introducing sappy into her adaptation of Ben Macintyre’s 2010 book.

Director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) keeps the plot percolating, but it's Firth and Macfadyen who draw us into the lives of their characters. Charles yearns for Jean, though it's Ewen, with a Jewish wife and children he’s sent to America for safety, who captures her heart.

And any true romantics watching will swoon at the sight of these dueling Darcys. Firth indelibly played Mr. Darcy in the 1995 TV series of Jane Austen’s classic “Pride and Prejudice” and Macfadyen took the same role in the acclaimed 2005 film, directed by Joe Wright.

Still, comparisons fade as the film proves the axiom that truth is stranger than fiction, able to jolt you with surprises you don’t see coming. In its celebration of the unlikely heroes behind the battle lines, “Operation Mincemeat” is a spellbinder you won’t forget.

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