Director: John Madden (UK, USA). Year of Release: 2022
July 1943, an operations room, deep in the British defence ministry. A group of people in the uniforms of army officers and secretaries hang nervously near the teleprompter waiting for news. Someone says that they should have heard something by now. What’s taking all the delay? Suddenly, the teleprompter starts to chatter. Blackout and pan back to 6 months previously-
It’s Ewen’s leaving do. He’s giving up his job high up in the legal profession. Officially he’s going into retirement but everyone knows he’s been co-opted for the War Effort. So it’s no surprize when he joins the Twenty Committee (Twenty, as in XX or double cross. There’s a lot of this secret naming going on here). The Committee’s job is to persuade Hitler that the Allies are planning to invade Greece when it’s obvious to anyone with a map that Sicily would be a better option.
At Ewen’s first Committee meeting, Charles Cholmondeley stands up and suggests Operation Trojan Horse whereby they’d organise for a corpse to be washed up on a Spanish beach, containing papers planning the Greek invasion. Ewen is the only one to support him, but they have the blessing of Churchill, so it’s not long before the two have been assigned to lead a team working on a similar assignment but with a less bleedingly obvious name.
A corpse is found (it’s not as easy as you’d think), given the name William Martin and assigned a back story. This means finding a picture and a love letter from a girlfriend, preferably a fiancée. Even asks Jean, who runs one of the departments of women, if she can find one of her “girls” who’ll allow themselves to be photographed. Jean offers a photograph of herself, on condition that she’s allowed to join the team.
There follows a great theatre where Ewen and Jean meet up and make suggestions for the history of William and his fiancée. The suggestions are obviously (so obviously) an expression of their unspoken mutual desire. At one point, when Ewen and Jean pass a dance hall, Jean says “they’re playing their tune” and takes Ewen in for a dance. You have to go a deep level of Method to need the tune for a pair for whom you’re only writing a single love letter, placed in a corpse’s pocket.
But that’s not really the point of a film which is obviously a post-Merchant Ivory play for the people who liked Colin Firth in the King’s Speech, but found the plot a little too complicated. So there’s a lot of Ewen raising a stiff upper lip and not being able to express himself while making googly eyes at Jean. This is occasionally broken up by shots of Cholmondeley making googly eyes at Jean, and eventually telling her that Ewen has a wife and children hiding away in the States.
It’s hard to say whether the spy story is the subplot to the infuriating love story or vice versa, but let’s just say one thing. Although many British romantic films have been made about men unable to express their emotions I can only think of one of them which was halfway good. And while my affection for The Remains of The Day may well be severely misplaced, even here the joke was not on poshoes who had empathy beaten out of them at Eton but at one of the servants.
Operation Mincemeat follows a more traditional plotline, asking us to feel sympathy or even respect for the entitled man who just can’t bring himself to fully cheat on his Jewish wife who had fled the country fearing a Nazi invasion. None of these films dare to suggest that the leading man’s inability to express normal human emotions is tied up with his class background, or to relate to women as equals and anything other than child bearing chattel.
Rant over, can we also look at some of the espionage plots? We’ll leave out the secret trip to Scotland driven by a drunk speed racer as I think this was supposed to be comedic. I’m less sure why they go to all the trouble to pretending that the corpse washed up on the Spanish shore is a pilot who had to jettison his flight without also flying a plane into the sea. It’s as if they thought the Nazis were stupid or incompetent (which, later in the film, they clearly are).
But there is one plot twist that is so obviously dumb that the problem it creates is acknowledged in the film (albeit over an hour later, not the 2 seconds it would take a normal sentient being to notice). If you worry about plot spoilers, please skip the next 1½ paragraphs. The corpse pilot is given a photograph of his sweetheart – the one taken of Jean. Jean then spends most of the film going to Ewen’s club and accompanying him to dances and other social occasions.
We started the film with all Ewen’s friends just knowing that he was taking a job in the secret services. And they’re developing a long and unnecessarily detailed back story for their corpse while he’s out on the town with his supposed girlfriend? The reason is partly explained by someone confidently saying there were no more Nazi spies in London. This is the imperial arrogance that allowed the KGB to infiltrate the British secret services at the height of the Cold War.
While all this is going on, sub officer Ian Fleming is sat in the corner typing it all up for his coming bestselling novel – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang maybe (Ian Fleming didn’t write anything else, did he?) Apart from the great unobserved security risk here, this is typical of the vacuousness of a film that thinks it is saying something meaningful but is little more than a dog dancing on its hind legs. Amusing for a short while, but at over two hours it stops being fun long before the end.