With the added bonus of dueling Mr. Darcys for “Pride and Prejudice” aficionados, “Operation Mincemeat” unites Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen in an extraordinary true story of World War II espionage, built around Winston Churchill’s statement that in war, truth should be accompanied by “a bodyguard of lies.” Here, the deception hinges on a corpse, with thousands of lives hanging in the balance.
Exceptionally well cast and directed by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), this handsome British production bogs down a bit in the personal lives of those responsible for the elaborate codenamed scheme, designed to convince Hitler that an allied invasion would be coming by way of Greece, not Sicily.
Desperate to mislead the Nazis, the two leaders of the program for MI6, Ewen Montagu (Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (“Succession’s” Macfadyen), masterminded the plot of floating a dead body with official-looking papers into the Nazis’ possession, hoping they would fall for the ruse and leave the coastline where the soldiers were to land relatively undefended.
The steps leading to that prove alternately comical and outlandish, such as the organizers staring intently at someone who just might pass, in a photo, for their corpse. Montagu works with a woman in their office, Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), to fabricate a detailed backstory for the dead man, in the process developing awkward feelings complicated by their personal situations.
Beyond the logistical hurdles, the team faces considerable skepticism from their superiors, with their conduit to Churchill, Admiral Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), ready to throw them overboard at a moment’s notice. (For his part, Churchill defines the stakes, observing, “The more fantastic, the more foolproof the plan must be.”)
It’s hard to go wrong with this cast (Firth is having a superstar streaming month with this and “The Staircase”) and source material, adapted by writer Michelle Ashford from a book by Ben Macintyre. But “Operation Mincemeat” nevertheless shines in its impeccable look and understated portrayals of these unlikely heroes, whose vital contribution to the war effort wasn’t widely known until decades later. As if that isn’t enough, the brain trust included a young Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), who went on to create James Bond.
The film thus operates on multiple levels, playing like an old-fashioned caper as well as a window into history. And like its inspiration, if there are hiccups here and there, when the smoke clears it’s hard to consider this delicious “Operation” anything but a rousing success.
“Operation Mincemeat” premieres May 11 on Netflix and is also playing in theaters in the UK.