10 December 2022

A world where the fate of men lies on a missing eyelash

Ewan Montagu (Colin Firth) leads a team who aim to deceive Hitler and end the war    Photograph: Warner Bros 

By Wendy Knowlton 

15 June 2022

The premise of Operation Mincemeat seems ludicrous. Hoping to make Hitler believe the Allies are about to launch a major offensive in Greece rather than Sicily, a dead body containing misleading plans is off-loaded from a submarine and left to wash ashore in Spain. The fact that this is based on a true story is surprising enough, but the deceptively informative corpse is only the beginning of a plot rife with triple agents, double bluffs, betrayals and outlandish speculation. While the potential for black comedy lurks, these war games are played with real lives, and this makes everything much more serious than the synopsis suggests. 

A fine cast of British actors takes us to is wartime London, where elegant functions come with a side of tinned Spam, and darkened streets conceal the “hidden war”. The agents of this war are all storytellers, lying to family and friends about what they do, and weaving tales to beguile the enemy and garner advantage. A duty-driven Ewan Montagu (Colin Firth), Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) and Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) brainstorm a backstory for the morgue-acquired body, posthumously pressed into service as their heroic courier. All the while, a young Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn) absorbs the subterfuge surrounding him and writes precursors to future espionage novels. For all of them, the line between what is true and what is invented blurs, and their own loyalties are challenged in a world where nothing is necessarily what it seems. 

By this late in the war everyone has broken everyone else’s codes and bugged most of their offices. So the team’s task is not only a matter of feeding others information and intercepting “chatter”, but of deciding what will be believed and whether to dismiss their own acquired memos as genuine or deceptive constructs. Then, of course, they have to predict who will find the body and whether this person will be loyal or treacherous, meticulous or lazy. If they report to the right people, will those people do what is expected? And if not, which double agents will be in place to prod them or re-route the plan? As if this isn’t enough, MI5 is spying on Montagu, whose brother they suspect of Communist leanings, and Cholmondeley is keeping Montagu and Jean Leslie under surveillance, jealous of their growing closeness. Everyone seems ripe to betray or be betrayed, and working out who will do what is mentally draining. 

Success in war is a relative term. Churchill may have agonised while waiting for news, haunted by shades of Gallipoli and the carnage that results from troops poised to intercept a landing, but even “minimal casualties” represent human lives. Any loss strikes a necessarily sombre note. Whilst the audience knows the operation’s fate, the tension felt on the protagonists’ behalf is very real. After all, anything can happen in a war where a corpse can be eloquent, and the fate of men hangs on a little more than guesswork and a missing eyelash. 

In cinemas now. 

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