“In stories of war, there is that which is seen and that which is hidden,” Johnny Flynn’s Ian Fleming says in the trailer for Operation Mincemeat, and this is certainly a movie that deals with the latter.
Set in 1943 when things were make or break for the Allies fighting Hitler in Europe, Operation Mincemeat is based on real events. The story follows intelligence officers Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) who come up with an improbable disinformation strategy centered on an unlikely secret agent – a dead man.
Equipping a random corpse with classified documents that identify him as an army major and making sure he washes up on the shores of fascist Spain, the planted papers make sure everything about the British plan to invade Greece goes straight into the hands of the Nazis. The twist? None of it is true – the British are actually invading Sicily.
Director John Madden, whose previous movies include the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love, talks us through utilizing “the weapon of surprise”, re-teaming with Colin Firth, and why the film will subvert your expectations of a World War 2 movie.
GamesRadar+: World War 2 is frequently trodden ground in movies. How did you approach Operation Mincemeat to make sure it added something different to the genre?
John Madden: Well, I think the nature of the story itself puts it in a unique category in terms of the annals of wartime stories and wartime films, actually. In some senses, you could say it’s an improbable story to make as a film because it’s not full of action. It’s the hidden war it’s dealing with, rather than the overt war where people are being shot to pieces and battles have been won or lost. It’s actually about the creation of fiction, which is one of the things that makes it really, really fascinating, and you can see that probably in the trailer, I think. They’re just trying to persuade Hitler, to persuade the enemy, that they’re not going to do something that is blindingly obvious that they will do if they were going to set about having a chance of winning that particular strategy in the war, which is basically how to get a foothold in Europe, and try and turn the war around again.
So one of the things that’s unusual about it, and I think you can sense it from the trailer, is that it’s very incongruous as a piece. It’s both funny, because of the extremely odd idea that they come up with, you know, to base the strategy on and because of some of the oddness that occurs as a result. It’s such a strange idea, it really ought not to work, and as the story unfolds, there are many, many, many reasons that it might not work. And so I think its uniqueness is what makes it unusual – that’s implicit in its title, it’s a very unusual title for a film.
I think there may be a sense of people thinking, ‘Oh, I think I know what a Second World War movie is.’ Particularly if it involves espionage, they have a certain idea. Well, this film does not conform to that idea, it really doesn’t, and its greatest weapon, I think, is the weapon that they had when they dreamt up the idea, the weapon of surprise, and the film turning in different directions that you weren’t expecting to go in. That’s a very pleasurable experience, I think, in the film.
Did you find it challenging to make a film based on real events? How much were you tempted to bend the facts for the benefit of the plot?
JM: It’s hard to talk about this project without referring to it as a sort of metafictional proposition, because the film is about a story, a story that purported to be true, but was actually false. I’m talking about the story of a man who washed up ashore because his aeroplane was downed, and he happens to be carrying crucial papers that actually would allow the enemy to see what the Allied plans were. That’s the true story, that actually turns out to be a completely false story. So it’s almost as if the material itself is dealing with speculation and whether or not the idea that you’re trying to convey is actually working.
So some of the challenge that actually becomes what you have to deal with, in terms of creating this fiction for an audience: are they going to believe it? That’s the question that sits at the heart of the story, and is one that you’re always asking an audience to do. So from my point of view, the challenge of it, and the interest in it, was accommodating a number of different kinds of tones and moods in it. There’s a sense in which it sort of embraces the preposterous, that’s in terms of what the story actually involves, trying to put a man who was already dead into the water and pretend that he died a couple of days ago, and so on and so forth. I mean, there are some odd ideas in there. And they give rise to different and conflicting emotions.
At the same time, the film is much, much more emotional than you would ever guess. It deals very much with the way in which the people who dream up the idea, who have a sense of humor, and a sense of mischief, and a sense of playfulness, and a very, very serious sense of how to create a watertight fiction… and end up in a place where they have no idea whether what they’ve done can actually work, and what the risks that are entailed in the idea not working, which would be an absolutely colossal massacre.
I mean, there’s enough that’s bizarre about the story, so we really didn’t have to falsify anything. It is an extraordinary story and it is one that gives rise to all kinds of speculation. I mean, many, many people will come forward with stories about this once the film comes out, because I know that’s true, it happened to Ben [Macintyre] when he wrote the book as well, people sort of own a little bit of it, or you suddenly find one person who played a tiny part in it. So I had Ben’s book to rely on, which, in and of itself has a degree of speculation in it, because as I said, the material invites that, but we take seriously an obligation to the real characters, because their families are still here and still with us, and we showed the film to them, and it all goes into the process.
Did you watch The Man Who Never Was, the 1956 film about the same events?
JM: Yes, I watched it quite late in the day, you’ll not be surprised to hear. Just because if you’re trying to paint a picture, you don’t want to paint the picture that’s already been painted. A very interesting thing about that version is that it was an adaptation of a book, which was an account of Operation Mincemeat written by Ewen Montagu, who is the character that Colin Firth plays in our story. And that was written under the very tight control of the intelligence services, who were very sensitive. The account was written only three years after the end of the war, and the film of that was made about five or six years later, where the shadow of the war was still lingering, and so it actually has a completely different take on the story. And, most critically, the identity of the body that they use was something that the intelligence services were very anxious should not ever be known. And so they had to create their own fiction around that story in the original one. In other respects, obviously, there are areas where the story overlaps, but it’s a totally different kind of film.
I wanted to ask as well about the role of the women in the film – based on the trailer, it looks like Kelly Macdonald’s character has quite a central role to play. Was that something you thought had maybe been downplayed by other accounts of the events?
JM: Really interestingly, the character that she plays, who herself becomes a sort of model for one of the characters within the fiction they’re creating, was also very central to the other film. But, actually, there are two women who are very, very critical in the story. Kelly is one of them, she plays a character called Jean Leslie, a real person, obviously, and she is very, very significant in the creation of the whole thing. You’ll see Kelly play a part that she hasn’t ever played before.
The other is Penelope Wilton, who plays the trusted confidant of Ewen Montagu and his trusted right hand as it were, and she has an extraordinarily significant role at the center of it as well, which is one of the things that’s very, very nice about the story, it is about the partnership between those two men [Montagu and Cholmondeley], but it’s really about that quartet of people and the pressures that come to bear on all of them as they get subsumed into the fiction they’re creating. So it’s really fascinating from that point of view, and these are women who are not defined by their romantic attachments so much as by the work that they’re doing, which is kind of unusual in a piece of that era.
This was your first time working with Colin Firth since Shakespeare in Love in 1998 – what was it like to work together again after all those years?
JM: Well, we’ve been trying to do it in the intervening 20 years because he’s a very good friend of mine, and he lives just around the corner and it’s certainly not the first time I’ve tried to work with him. But we’ve been confounded by conflicting schedules or one thing just overlapping in the wrong place. And I have to say that for certain other projects that I’ve nearly done or been involved with, he was certainly already installed in my head as the perfect casting for x, and in this particular case, it just seemed like a perfect marriage to me.
I ended up with the two of them, with Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen, as the kind of ideal casting for this. They fit the characterizations almost perfectly. As it happens, they’ve both played Mr. Darcy, which has been pointed out before. But really, they’re just an incredibly good match. You see the way it unfolds in the story, and so there was something terrific about that. Colin, I think, has found his feet as an absolute unparalleled kind of leading actor, because obviously his Oscar nominations, and his Oscar win [for 2010’s The King’s Speech], happened halfway through that period between being in Shakespeare in Love and this film, and so it’s been very, very nice, finally, to make that happen again.
Operation Mincemeat will arrive in UK theaters on January 7, 2022. In the US, it’s set to be released on Netflix, but it doesn’t have a release date across the pond yet. In the meantime, check out our list of the other upcoming movies to get excited about in 2021 and beyond.