At a time when the latest Marvel movie will be stomping its way through the box office, turning on Operation Mincemeat — the kind of star-studded, adult-oriented, mid-range drama that studios don't often greenlight anymore — might feel like an act of resistance. While British audiences have the option of buying a ticket for it instead of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, most American viewers will have to be content with queueing it up at home, but thinking about the viewing experience in those oppositional terms might actually help it. On its own, it's unlikely to inspire strong, polarized responses. Operation Mincemeat is a solid movie, the only reasonable reactions to which are mild. A small smile and a nod of approval on one end of the spectrum, a tilt of the head and a dismissive shrug on the other. Someone watching it out of a desire to comment on the entertainment industry, and seeing themselves as part of a community of likeminded rebels, might be the only chance it has at making any sustainable impact on their psyche.
Based on a genuine World War II military undertaking, director John Madden's Operation Mincemeat tells the story of how British Military Intelligence convinced Nazi Germany that the Allies were planning to invade Greece instead of Sicily by loading up a corpse with fake documents and beaching it on the Spanish coast. The two in charge of leading the so-crazy-it-just-might-work scheme are Colin Firth's Ewen Montagu, a Naval officer who accepts the assignment after his wife and children flee to America, and Matthew Macfadyen's Charles Cholmondeley, a lonely bachelor eager to step out from beneath the shadow of his recently fallen, war-hero brother. They team up with Penelope Winton's Hester Leggett, Kelly Macdonald's Jean Leslie, and Johnny Flynn's (future James Bond creator) Ian Fleming, with Jason Isaacs playing John Godfrey, the skeptical Director of Naval Intelligence eager to shut the initiative down.
As expected, Operation Mincemeat's collection of British talent is its greatest asset, but the film is too content to coast on watching them do their thing. The story (perhaps surprisingly) doesn't lend itself to a lot of action, and while the actors are game to create compelling, character-based drama, the script gives them little to play with. The crux is a pseudo-love triangle that forms between Ewen, Jean, and Charles, but despite Macfadyen's best efforts as the jealous admirer, it doesn't prove especially compelling. A subplot about a potential traitor in their midst feels equally toothless and the reason for both might be the movie's tone. Until the operation is actually executed (a section that picks up quite nicely), Madden barely entertains the idea that things could go wrong, which makes it difficult to take any of the narrative beats seriously.
Still, even if those sequences in Spain will make viewers wonder why the whole movie wasn't set there, it does enough to keep their attention. It will even tap that familiar well of emotion for the story's inevitable conclusion. This sense of being passable extends to the film's visuals and themes as well, which seem intent on capturing what people love about a good spy story. Much is made about everyone in the Intelligence community writing or wanting to write a spy novel, which rhymes nicely with the operation itself, which involves building a fictional life for the corpse from scratch. The cinematography does its part by occasionally using street lamps to create spots of light framed by fields of darkness, but the movie is far from styled like an espionage thriller. For the most part, it sports the look of the standard biopic.
The contrast between this and the romanticized visions of the characters feels intentional, but exactly what is intended is unclear. Take, for example, the decision to frame this as a soft-origin story for Bond, to which transparent references are made throughout. Is this designed to highlight the non-Bondness of Madden's film, and thereby celebrate the mundane, life-saving reality of MI5? Is it to frame plans like Operation Mincemeat as how the creatively inclined contributed to the war effort with maximum impact? Is it more critically minded, rapping a flashy blockbuster franchise on the knuckles for distorting the truth? Instead, it plays like the movie aggressively winking at the audience and the ultimate effect of treating these references like cameos pulls Operation Mincemeat closer to a Marvel movie than one ever imagined it could get. Maybe watching it isn't such a revolutionary act, after all.
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Operation Mincemeat released in limited US theaters on May 6 and is streaming on Netflix as of May 11. The film is 128 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for strong language, some sexual content, brief war violence, and smoking.