As far as British cinema goes, there can hardly be a single World War II story left to tell. We’ve been bragging about our stiff upper lip since war movies like Went The Day Well? In 1942 and Fires Were Started in 1943. We’re proud of being on the “right side” of history; of our bulldog spirit; of our acts of espionage and subterfuge. And it’s all of these things that John Madden’s Operation Mincemeat seeks to evoke.

Based on the Ben MacIntyre non-fiction book of the same name, the film centres around one of the most audacious acts of deception ever undertaken in wartime. Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) is a silk who has been drawn into The Twenty Committee, who are carrying out military strategies whilst gathering information from a network of European spies and diplomats.

He is paired with Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) in order to carry out the titular Operation Mincemeat in order to convince Adolf Hitler to abandon the strategically important Italian island of Sicily. If successful, the move could save tens of thousands of lives and
be a real turning point in the war. But will a floating corpse, laden with false intelligence
documents, really be enough to fool the Nazis?

It feels like a properly British endeavour. The accents are all clipped and cut glass. Dates and times appear on screen via the clickety clack of a typewriter. The 1940s London townhouses are full of creaking furniture and tiled floors. The woolen uniforms look itchy. Cigarette smoke weaves its way through almost every scene.

Thomas Newman’s score blends bombastic brasses with ticking percussion; easy 1940s jazz with national anthem-esque chords. What works so well within this film is that it manages to blend a number of narratives together successfully. We get to see the internal sniping and posturing within British military intelligence. We witness the wheeling and dealing (and fair amount of sexual favours) taking place on the continent. We see the inspiration behind one of the greatest spy characters ever written. We get to know our two leads very well and understand how their personal lives and driving their personal motivations.

Yes, it’s the Battle of the former Mr. Darcey’s at the heart of Operation Mincemeat that is one of its main narrative drives. Montagu has shipped his Jewish wife off to America in the event of a Nazi invasion – but is there really a marriage there to be saved? And is his flighty, bitchy brother a Communist sympathiser? Colin Firth battles through it all with a stiff upper lip that would make the bluest of bloods jealous. Matthew Macfadyen lends such great empathy to Cholmondeley, the underdog, who is desperate to become a war hero like his brother. Numerous physical ailments have kept him out of active service and now he has a point to prove. The two leads are simply excellent, playing off each other really well. At times in perfect harmony, at other times plotting against each other.

Johnny Flynn – as Ian Fleming – may as well be winking to camera as he sees all of the gadget in “Q Branch” and refers to Jason Isaacs’ character as “M”. It’s a storyline that’s so engaging in itself that you almost wish they’d make another film, purely about Fleming. It’s so well done and, again, really appeals to that sense of Britishness. Isaacs snarls and purrs his way through the film, leading a supporting cast that includes the likes of Penelope Wilton, Simon Russell Beale and Mark Gatiss. Kelly Macdonald has real trouble keeping her English accent up (it often fluctuates mid-sentence), which is a real shame as Jean Leslie is perhaps the most fleshed out, interesting female character here.

Madden – who has also directed Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – treats his subject matter with real care and attention. We are privy to all sorts of details as to the operation itself and its chaotic aftermath. There are brief scenes of battle, namely the landing of troops in Sicily, but this is a film that is far more concerned with personal stories and brilliant ideas. And it’s in that respect that this may not be the war movie for everyone.

Most of the action takes place in the claustrophic London basement where the operation was set in motion – there’s not much action or heroics on display. At just over two hours, there are a couple of pacing issues and you may well find yourself wanting to see more of one sub-plot and less of another. Plenty of loose ends are left untied, despite a few notes at the end of the film as to what fate awaited each player.

That being said, Operation Mincemeat is a thoroughly enjoyable historical drama for those who enjoy classic British war films, the James Bond franchise or films such as The Imitation Game. It’s much more about being quietly entertaining than full of noisy action sequences. How very British of it.

Rating: ★★★