The real story behind Ground Meat Operation is a compelling stranger-than-fiction tale, once brought to life in the 1956 film The man who never was. The latest adaptation, from director John Madden and screenwriter Michelle Ashford, presents a simple, sometimes posed version of the story, led by a talented cast who bring the historical material to life. Released theatrically in the UK but debuting in the US on Netflix, Ground Meat Operation is the kind of in-between real-life drama that was once award-winning and is now something closer to viewing comfort.
That doesn’t mean that Ground Meat Operation is not, however, a well-made and captivating film. It would be hard to make the true facts of the 1943 covert operation any less compelling, and Madden (Shakespeare in love, Debt, Miss Sloane) and Ashford are both consummate professionals. They add just enough personal history to augment the sometimes dry spy narrative, balancing military maneuvers with an exploration of the emotional toll of World War II.
By the start of the film, the war has already taken its toll on Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Succession‘s Matthew Macfadyen), both members of the Twenty Committee, a British intelligence team in charge of deception and double agents. Ewen sent his Jewish wife and two young children to live in the United States to protect them from possible German attacks on London, and it strains his marriage. Charles mourns the death on the battlefield of his brother, whose body has not yet been returned to the family.
Ewen is a newcomer to the Committee of Twenty, but he and Charles are immediately on the same page about the best plan to distract the Nazis from an upcoming Allied invasion of Sicily. The British government wants to convince Adolf Hitler that the Allies are in fact planning a massive offensive in Greece in order to drive Nazi troops away from Sicily. The pretentious and unofficial leader of the Committee, Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), prefers traditional tactics involving troop maneuvers.
Ewen and Charles come up with a plan from a memo described by Godfrey’s assistant – and future James Bond creator – Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn) instead. They will plant a corpse in the sea off the coast of Spain, resembling a British pilot who drowned after his plane crashed. The corpse will bear official-looking forged papers describing an operation in Greece, and corrupt officials in ostensibly neutral Spain will route these papers to the German military.
The idea is both simple and far-fetched, involving much more elaborate planning than it first appears. The first half of Ground Meat Operation is mainly devoted to the logistics of setting up the plan. It’s exciting and well-paced, though it largely involves Ewen, Charlie, and the other members of their team taking various meetings. Godfrey gives them only limited resources, defeating them, but Ewen has brought along his resourceful longtime secretary Hester Leggett (Downton Abbey‘s Penelope Wilton), and they also recruit enthusiastic clerk Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald). Hester and Jean are instrumental in crafting the kind of detailed personal history that will make the fake operation officer look like the real thing to skeptical German intelligence agents.
The process of creating a wartime romance for the man they nickname Major William Martin brings Ewen and Jean closer together, even though the shy and clumsy Charles only has eyes for Jean himself. Spending time on a love triangle while the fate of an entire military operation hangs in the balance might seem superfluous, but Madden and the cast keep it low-key, giving it just the right amount of emotional resonance to demonstrate just how dedicated these characters are to make sacrifices for their country. They’re all prime examples of proper British reserve, whether executing complex spy maneuvers or pining for unrequited lovers, but the actors convey the strong emotions behind stiff upper lips. .
The filmmakers and characters give proper respect to the dead man they choose to become their fake military officer. Ground Meat Operation is a kind of human spy story, always mindful of the personal cost of wartime decisions. There’s less emphasis on suspense, though Madden creates tension at times as the team waits to find out if certain aspects of their plan have worked as planned. Ground Meat Operation takes place during a war and culminates in a full-scale invasion, but there’s almost no action, just intrigue and negotiation. It’s a testament to the skill of the filmmakers that they can make these moments almost as thrilling as troops storming a beach at night.
Ashford is a television veteran whose credits include the HBO series The pacific and John Adamsand there’s a TV series quality to Ground Meat Operation which Madden never quite gets over. It’s not a great epic, but it’s not really meant to be. It’s a pleasantly modest film that effectively sheds light on a somewhat forgotten corner of history.
Operation Mincemeat premieres Wednesday, May 11 on Netflix.
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