I loved watching films with my grandfather. We called him Peepaw. It was always something he wanted to do. The problem with Peepaw was a measurement of quality. He always wanted middle-of-the-road stories with little challenges and concise, wrapped-in-a-bow storylines. One of his favorite films was the Kevin Costner snooze-fest Dragonfly. The conventionality and Costner’s charismatic banality was exactly what he wanted. He thought it was a masterpiece.
This doesn’t mean Peepaw only liked terrible movies. He was a huge fan of The Guns of the Navarone or The Great Escape. His generation couldn’t get enough of World War II films. These days, when my brothers and I see a film that hit those points, we would describe them as “Peepaw movies” for their ability to appeal to our late grandfather’s particular sensibilities. John Madden’s Operation Mincemeat is THE Peepaw movie.
Colin Firth stars as Ewen Montagu, a British Naval intelligence officer. Along with Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) and Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), the are members the clandestine Twenty Committee to deceive German forces. In 1943, Allied powers feel the need for a large-scale amphibious invasion of Europe. The obvious target is Sicily in southern Italy, but the Nazis would expect this. The team is tasked with tricking the Nazis into believing they will invade elsewhere.
This idea is the brainchild of Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs) and his assistant Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn). The team decides to use a dead body of a vagrant and concoct a story of his life along with fake documents telling the Nazis of their “intentions” to invade Greece instead of Sicily. With the clock ticking and the war raging, personalities and politics come into play.
The Fleming in the story is the same Fleming who wrote the James Bond novels. Every exchange, character, or plot point is mentioned or vaguely referenced as inspiring Bond. While the actual work is going on, Fleming is constantly in the background typing or narrating the action. There is a continuing running joke about the over-abundance of writers in the Twenty Committee. Outside of a boozy chauffer, this is the closest thing to fun as the film gets.
Everything is deadly serious. Just in case the viewer doesn’t remember, a character will pop in to remind the team “The fate of the free world is dependent on your success.” This is anticlimactic because we are here in the world today and we know the Nazis didn’t win. They do try to ratchet up the drama, but it all falls flat. An unnecessary love triangle subplot dominates far too much of the film, while the actual nuts and bolts of the spying were much more interesting.
Firth, Macfayden, and Macdonald are all charismatically talented performers, but they do little more than frown and stress. Firth barely changes his facial expression throughout the film, while Macfayden does little more than stare wide-eyed behind large glasses. Macdonald has such a distinctive Scottish brogue, her attempts at a proper English accent sound off. No actor distinguishes themselves, but no one embarrasses themselves either.
Completely unremarkable and inoffensive, Operation Mincemeat is a much more interesting story than the film it portrays. This isn’t a film to be enjoyed, but one to be told about over the phone by a grandparent. Prepare for conversations like, “Did you know M from the Bond movies is based on a real person?”
Grandparents deserve films catered to them as well. It’s the perfect “Peepaw movie” and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Operation Mincemeat is now streaming on Netflix