Based on historical facts, this is a story of deception, dead bodies, Nazi invasions, and trying to fool everyone in the Third Reich, including Hitler! Even though it’s ‘based on true facts’, certain events have been embellished for, y’know, Hollywood.
It’s 1943 and WW2 is going strong as the British get wind of the Germans going to invade Sicily, a major stronghold in the war. In a meeting with Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), a brash young Naval intelligence officer named Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn) presents a crazy plan, backed up by Officer Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth). Have a corpse wash ashore in Spain with fake papers saying that British forces will be invading Greece, not Sicily! This would (hopefully) fool the Germans and give Sicily to the Allies. Kinda-sorta approved by Churchill (Simon Russell Beale) and called Operation: Trojan Horse (later changed to Operation: Mincemeat), Montagu and Fleming are joined by MI5 agent, Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew MacFayden).
They find a body–a suicide victim from Scotland–and prepare to invent a complete backstory of a British officer who never existed, with help from stoic MI5 secretary Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton) and a pretty MI5 clerk, Jean Leslie (Kelly MacDonald), who writes the fake officer’s love letters. With Officer “William Martin” ready to be thrown into the ocean via a submarine, the gang face obstacles at every turn, not to mention a love triangle that forms between widowed Jean, Charles (who has a puppy-dog crush on her), and Ewen (who is married and is seriously in love with her).
As the body washes up in Spain, there are complications as the secret papers with William may not be read by the German spies there. Looks like it’s up to British spy, David Ainsworth (Nicholes Rowe), to prime the pump a little. Rumor has it that Fleming took his inspiration for James Bond from David! Anyway, just as the Germans take the bait, Jean gets a visit from a German spy who may or may not be on our side! There’s suspense, a spy thriller mixed in with a rom-com, and some good ol’ fashioned CSI procedural stuff as the British try and concoct a fantastic (and totally fictional) person to fool the enemy. As with most historical dramas put to the screen, all is not as it really happened.
Screenwriter Michelle Ashford (TV series Masters of Sex, 21 Jump Street) has taken the real-life story and added the fictional “one-woman/two men” angle to give this two-hour-plus Netflix movie something more than a simple History Channel special. Which is okay, but the love triangle adds an unnecessary B-story to the plot and could have been cut out entirely. And, just like in the 1956 adaptation movie, a secondary story of a German spy was thrown in for tension, but never happen. However, Ashford’s historical stuff works and works quite well. We get more of the background story of the inner workings and behind the scenes than in the 1956 movie and with better dialogue.
Director John Madden (Shakespeare In Love, Mrs. Brown) has a firm handle on this, even though it’s a historical piece without much action. He knows how to give each actor their due, holding the camera on them for maximum impact. Firth and MacFayden are great together here, especially when they are at odds over issues of plans or a certain woman. MacDonald is more than just the love interest, as she possesses an inner strength to her, while the hardened, battle-weary Wilton is excellent as the guy’s conscience. And both Flynn and Rowe are just terrific as the future author and cocky spy.
**Now streaming exclusively on Netflix
The Man Who Never Was (1956)
Part historical fact, part British fictional drama, this espionage thriller is, in fact, based on the true story of how British intelligence tricked the Nazis, but embellishments were made to round out the movie. Y’know, just like Hollywood does!
Yeah, this really happened (well, parts of it anyway). In 1943 in the middle of WW2, the island of Sicily (a major stronghold in the war) was in danger of being taken by the Germans. In England, Royal Navy Lt. Commander Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) and his second, Lt. George Acres (Robert Flymng), try to devise a scheme to deceive the Nazis about their impending invasion. Montagu comes up with a crazy idea: dump a corpse with a fictional identity off the coast of Spain where the currents will carry it ashore. Hopefully, the Germans there will see it, examine it, and believe all the planted “secret” documents on the body that an invasion is imminent, but over in Greece instead!
Calling it Operation: Mincemeat, they call the body Major William Martin and luckily find a recently deceased Scottish lad with pneumonia to fit the bill. Dressing him with highly classified (fake) documents, photos & love letters from his (fake) fiancé, and more, he’s taken to a submarine and shipped off near the coast of Spain. As his body is found and examined by the Spanish people, the Germans grab Martin’s briefcase. Meanwhile, back in England, Montagu’s stoic secretary, Pam (Josephine Griffin), and her roommate, Lucy (Gloria Grahame), are waiting for news about Lucy’s own fiancé overseas. As the days go by, the British High Command waits to hear if the Germans took the bait about William Martin.
Although Hitler is convinced, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (Wolf Frees) isn’t and sends Nazi SS spy, Patrick O’Reilly (Stephen Boyd) to England to see if William Martin was ever a real person! As O’Reilly snoops around and reports back, via short-wave radio, he stumbles into the apartment of Pam & Lucy, thinking Lucy was Martin’s fiancé! Uh-oh! If you go on YouTube there is an excellent British doc about Operation: Mincemeat that gives you an in-depth, factual, and declassified look at what really happened back in 1943. And that documentary is far more entertaining than this movie.
Although based on the book, The Man Who Never Was by Ewen Montagu, the screenplay by Nigel Balchin (23 Paces to Baker St, Barabbas) takes some liberties. . . okay, it takes a lot of liberties and invents a whole bunch of characters that have nothing to do with the actual story. Example: the entire third act of the Patrick O’Reilly spy story, along with Pam and Lucy, were all made up for suspense and to pad out the run time. In fact, the Germans bought the whole William Martin fake story hook, line, and sinker. Oh, and the guy who really thought of the idea of using a corpse? It was a young officer named Ian Fleming. Yeah, the guy who wrote all those James Bond books!
Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Adventure, Scrooge), who usually excels in directing, did this droll, procedural, by-the-numbers movie. It only gets interesting in the third act when the fictional Nazi spy shows up. The events leading up to that are very matter-of-fact with Clifton Webb doing his dry Lynn Belvedere schtick. The only ones showing any emotion are Griffin and Grahame, which is funny as Grahame is really awful in this movie, but is great in It’s A Wonderful Life as Violet the town floozy.