After several decades of roundly ignoring World War II, British cinema was abruptly re-energised in terms of telling stories of British stiff-upper lip and derring do. So suddenly, there’s a deluge of product, including Their Finest, The Imitation Game, The Darkest Hour, The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society and The Aftermath. Only one, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, seemed to catch a wave of public interest; the rest can be filed under failed attempts to instil patriotism into an uncertain, disillusioned audience; Operation Mincemeat’s much delayed opening suggest a movie out of touch with anything, and it’s probably for the best that they’ve flogged the movie to Netflix for a cinema-skipping US debut on streaming from May 11th 2022.
The story has been previously told in films like 1956’s The Man Who Never Was; with WWII hanging in the balance, an elaborate ruse is created whereby a dead man is fitted out with false papers and dumped in the sea. The intended effect is to convince the Nazis that the Allied forces were about to do something other than they were, so there’s a lot riding on the illusion, and Operation Mincemeat’s story largely depends on engaging our interest in the detail; things don’t go to plan when the body is first discovered, and some genuine tension results.
But the human story is what’s important, and despite a range of iconic actors from Colin Firth to Kelly MacDonald, not many of the fictional narratives grab the attention. The exception is Johnny Flynn playing a young Ian Fleming in a Shakespeare in Love sequence, showing how Fleming took inspiration from wartime activities that would lead him to the creation of James Bond. It’s a shame John Madden’s film doesn’t investigate other characters knocking around at the time, notably bon viveur and occult writer Dennis Wheatley, but portraying such eccentrics wouldn’t fit in with a po-faced, ‘the government knows best’ tone that’s so far from where we are now.
But why this, why now? Operation Mincemeat is far too familiar in content and too monotone to catch the public imagination. WWII has had many great films made about it, but it’s about time British film-makers were allowed to say something about where the country is now. With hopelessly weak, out-of-touch leaders who can’t be trusted, or even questioned without throwing their toys out of the pram, endlessly looking back doesn’t help any of us when we need to be looking forward.
Operation Mincemeat is out in UK cinemas from April 15th and on Netflix US from May 11th 2022.