‘Operation Mincemeat’ Dramatizes the True Story of How a Top Secret Mission Changed the Course of WWII

The astounding true story of how a dead man masquerading as a British soldier changed the course of World War II unfolds in “Operation Mincemeat,” the latest period drama from “Shakespeare in Love” director John Madden. Colin Firth stars as Ewen Montagu, a British Naval officer who oversaw this unbelievable mission alongside another intelligence officer, Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen), two men fighting in the “war of shadows.”

“Operation Mincemeat” begins in 1943, when Britain and the rest of the Allied powers are doing everything they can to stop Hitler and Nazi Germany. In the more personal story, Ewen’s private life is on the brink of collapse as he is given more responsibility at work. His wife Iris (Hattie Morahan) is heading to the States with their young children, ostensibly for their safety, but it is implied that the separation could become permanent. Adding to his stress at home is the fact that his brother Ivor (Mark Gatiss), who lives under his roof, is suspected of being a communist and a spy for Russia. While Ewen insists that Ivor is a harmless dilettante, his boss, John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), sees things differently, and makes a deal with Charles to spy on his colleague in return for the body of his fallen hero brother to his poor mother.

But none of the stresses in the men’s lives prepare them for what comes to be known as Operation Mincemeat. Their team comes up with a plan to drop the aforementioned corpse off the coast of Spain with fraudulent documents detailing a planned allied invasion of Greece. Their hope is that Nazi spies will get ahold of the false intelligence and give it to Hitler, who would send his troops to Greece, unaware that the real plan is to launch an attack in Siciliy. The plot kicks into gear after they find a body, which turns out to be a more arduous process than one would think, as it is not enough to create the misleading documents, as they also have to create a whole identity for the dead man whom they decide to call Major Bill Williams. 

Although the real Montagu wrote a memoir, “The Man Who Never Was,” which was subsequently adapted into a film, the full extent of what went into Operation Mincemeat was not known to the public until documents pertaining to the mission were unsealed in 1997. Madden’s longtime collaborator Michelle Ashford adapted the screenplay for their film from Ben Macintyre’s book “Operation Mincemeat.”

Madden revealed to Entertainment Voice during a recent Zoom chat that he would prefer those who view “Operation Mincemeat” not be familiar with the real story. He himself only learned the full version after Ashford read Macintyre’s book and brought it to his attention a decade ago. “The truth is, when I was growing up four years after the end of the second world war, it was in the urban myth zone. If you mention it was a story about a dead body, people of that era would probably go, ‘Oh, I think I know what that is. Did it wash up on the shore or something?’. People know that detail of it, because it’s rather a striking detail. That was probably where it was for me.”

In addition to Ewen and Charles, “Operation Mincemeat” features the strong POVs of two female characters working behind the scenes with the men, which is not something you see a lot of in films dealing with war. Kelly Macdonald portrays Jean Leslie, a woman working with the two men who becomes involved in the operation after Ewen asks if he can use a photo of her to include in Bill’s belongings for authenticity, making her “Pam,” his beloved fiancée. Soon, the pair are working late nights together putting together Bill and Pam’s love story and writing their passionate letters. Naturally, an attraction develops between the two of them, and this is uncomfortable not only because of Ewen’s marital status and the fact that they are co-workers, but also due to the fact that Charles also has a crush on the widowed Jean. Although Charles is single, he lacks Ewen’s confidence and charisma. Firth and Macfadyen play well off of each other as Ewen and Charles’ awkward love triangle with Jean adds more tension to an already stressful operation.

Madden had nothing but praise for his two male leads, who he revealed were his first choices for their respective roles. “It’s unusual, in a sense, to have two key leads together. It’s not that common in a film, unless it’s a buddy movie, and I suppose on some level this is a buddy movie. That seemed like a very, very perfect combination for us. They both have extraordinary skill sets, different kinds in different ways. They work wonderfully together.”

Penelope Wilton plays the other key female character, Hester Leggett, Ewen’s secretary of many years who ends up acting as his moral compass. Although she is loyal to Ewen, she also looks out for the interests of Iris, as well as the women who work under her, which includes Jean. It is these relationships that add warmth to the story. As gripping as everything that goes on during the long meetings with the men is, these very human interactions outside of the boardroom keep us invested.

Madden discussed how the war opened up new opportunities for women, as many of their able-bodied male counterparts of service age were swallowed up by the military. “There was just an enormous need for auxiliary activity in one sort or another, particularly, as it turns out, in [intelligence]… It was just a massive part of what swung the war in our direction, once the Enigma code was broken. So many of them came from that field, so it was absolutely true that Kelly’s character, who was working in intelligence at that point in a fairly low level, and Hester’s character… who was a very close associate of Montagu’s, just had terribly central roles that were not defined. We passed the Bechdel test in that particular instance. It was very enjoyable.”

If the story of “Operation Mincemeat” sounds like something out of a novel, that is because many of those involved in the mission were writers who went on write professionally, including none other than “James Bond” author Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), Godfrey’s assistant who provides the film’s narration. The “plot” of Operation Mincemeat was brought forth by Fleming, who was inspired by a detective novel called “The Case of the Milliner’s Hat” by Basil Thompson. It’s another fascinating layer to an already thrilling story.

“Given that the film is about the story of the creation of a fiction, it’s also about people who have spent their lives creating fiction, and it is really about the idea of storytelling,” explained Madden. “That’s what the film is about. It’s about how you construct a story, what happens to what you put into it personally, how a story becomes affected by your emotions and experiences and so on. It’s a very interesting aspect of it.”

But at the end of the day, Operation Mincemeat was very much real life, and the fates of millions were in the hands of Ewen and his team. We see the gravity of the situation wear down the characters more and more as the film goes on, and no amount of distractions can stop them from feeling the immense pressure and anxiety that comes with a mission with so much at stake, one where even the slightest error or unexpected element could ruin everything. Once Bill is dropped into the sea, everything is out of their control. 

While WII is long in the rearview, Madden soberingly reminds us that war rages on in our present world. “We’ve all had that sense of being in the midst of something that might go terribly wrong. In the film business it comes with the territory, but, honestly, I can’t really hold that up as being anything I could dare compare to the world they were in then or indeed the kind of circumstances that people are facing now as this war is raging on the other side of the world, because it is unimaginable, what is going through of those people who are buried in that industrial complex in Mariupol, fighting to the death, which is what is going on as we speak.”
Operation Mincemeat” begins streaming May 11 on Netflix.