Operation Mincemeat tells a story so unbelievable that it could only be true: At the height of World War II, two British Intelligence officers hatch a scheme to trick Hitler using the most unlikely of secret agents: a dead man. It's a story director John Madden recalls being something of an "urban myth" when he was a boy.
"I'm a postwar baby, but I was still connected enough to the aftermath of World War II through my parents. My father was behind the lines in Italy in the last years of the war, so [it's] not that distant a connection," the filmmaker, who was born in England in 1949, tells A.frame.
Madden only learned the full story upon reading Ben Macintyre's 2010 book of the same name. The screenwriter Michelle Ashford, with whom Madden collaborated on Showtime's Masters of Sex, gave him a copy as that series was ending its run, with hopes of adapting it into a feature that Madden would direct. "The book is an extraordinary read," he says. "One that might lead you to think, 'My Lord, is it possible to make a film of this?'"
At first blush, Madden's filmographic DNA within Operation Mincemeat seems clear: The movie is part Captain Corelli's Mandolin, the Nicolas Cage-starring war movie he directed in 2001, with elements added in of The Debt, his 2010 thriller about Mossad Agents on a secret mission. Still, Madden found a different parallel to his past work.
"It occurred to Michelle, who was very anxious not to present it to me as a means of luring me into the project, but strangely Shakespeare in Love popped into her head when she read the material," Madden laughs. "I understood why, in the sense that it was about the creation of a fiction and the way in which the creators of that fiction disappear into the fiction themselves."
Operation Mincemeat unfolded as such: With Allied forces planning to invade Sicily, two British naval officers concocted an elaborate plot to convince the Germans they were instead invading Greece. The men procured a corpse, created an intricate backstory for him as a member of the Royal Marines and set him adrift carrying false intelligence documents in Spanish waters for the Germans to discover. In the end, Allied forces successfully invaded Sicily in 1943 and helped turn the tide of the war.
Ewen Montagu, who concocted the deception alongside officer Charles Cholmondeley, wrote a heavily-vetted account of the operation in his 1953 book, The Man Who Never Was, which was adapted into a 1956 Ronald Neame film starring Clifton Webb and Gloria Grahame. By the time Macintyre set out to write his book, the intelligence files had finally been declassified.
"It was an enormous, enormous volume of material that revealed significantly different aspects of the story," Madden points out, "and most particularly the identity of the body that was used, which is, of course, a central part of the story we're telling."
Madden and Ashford spent years shaping the plot of Operation Mincemeat to highlight the human story within the mission. The end product is part war film, part espionage film, and part wartime romance drama. "With these post-modern themes about truth and fiction, and the way in which the story itself was being rendered in a fiction of its own," Madden says.
And, lest anyone forget, a corpse. "If you're trying to tell a story about a dead body, then obviously a certain amount of black humor or gallows humor can't be that far away," he explains. "There were a lot of people that said, 'Aren't you worried about that?' I wasn't worried about it. If you keep your magnetic north on the reality of what's happening to the characters, then I think it takes care of itself. But it makes for an interesting experience -- I hope!"
With Colin Firth as Montagu and Matthew Macfadyen as Cholmondeley, alongside an ensemble that includes Kelly Macdonald, Penelope Wilton and Johnny Flynn (as Ian Fleming, the man who would, of course, go on to become the spy novelist who created James Bond), Madden began shooting at the end of 2019 and wrapped filming in Spain the following year -- four days before their first COVID-19 lockdowns.
"I was 140 miles away from my editor throughout the entire [post-production] process, which actually didn't slow it down -- except in one respect -- which is that we never could put the film in front of an audience." Madden reflects. "And with this film in particular, given its shifting tones and the switch-back nature of its narrative, that was something that I missed. And only recently have I been able to start watching it with an audience."
Operation Mincemeat premiered at the 2021 British Film Festival and opened in U.K. cinemas in April ahead of its streaming debut on Netflix on May 11. Upon its release, Madden enters the ever-growing pantheon of British filmmakers who have helmed war dramas centered on duty, love of country and maintaining a stiff upper lip in the face of danger.
"I think is pretty unique in the canon of World War II dramatic literature," Madden considers. "It didn't seem to me to owe any particular debt to another film. You're not taking on The Bridge on the River Kwai, you know what I mean? It didn't feel like it was a war movie that I had to elbow others out of the way to find a space to make."
Having spent his entire career crisscrossing from one genre to the next -- in addition to the aforementioned titles, Madden is also the director behind both Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies -- Madden doesn't spend much time considering the movies that have come before, whether that be the work of other filmmakers or his own, and analyzing the parallels that they might have with the film he's working on. After all, he only picked up on the Shakespeare in Love similarities once they were pointed out to him.
"It's not an obvious parallel, except when you think that it has the shape of what I call an 'intoxication.' That's the way I always thought about Shakespeare in Love. It was the intense creation of a fiction that begins in a farcical context," he says. "Obviously, the stakes are entirely different in the two. That was an outright comedy, nevertheless, also a movie that shifted in tone and navigated its way through something that involved you emotionally at the same time, as being a right love letter and a satire on show business in other ways."
"But I'm not consciously referencing my own work or indeed necessarily referencing work outside of films that I've admired," Madden concludes. "I'm very monogamous as a filmmaker. I enclose myself in the world that I'm creating and dedicate myself to it exclusively, to the point of not really being able to consider what I might be doing next or something else I'm in the process of developing that I just can't pay any attention to while I'm telling this."
Reporting by John Boone