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How the dead body of a tramp led to one of the boldest plots in WWII

OPERATION MINCEMEAT ★★★½

(M) 127 minutes, cinemas

It seems like a while since “Keep Calm and Carry On” was inscribed on every second tea-towel: perhaps nostalgia for a state of emergency works better when you’re not actually in one.

Matthew Macfadyen (left) as Charles Cholmondeley, Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu and Johnny Flynn as Ian Fleming in Operation Mincemeat.

Still, nothing could be cosier than the wartime London of John Madden’s Operation Mincemeat, populated by staunch chaps with Brylcreemed hair, stiff upper lips and a commitment to doing the decent thing.

It’s 1942, the aftermath of the Blitz, world history hanging in the balance. But whatever is going on across the Channel, the “shadow war” as portrayed here takes on a certain whimsical unreality, like a grown-up version of Harry Potter.

In life as on screen, the bold gambit known as Operation Mincemeat involved commandeering the dead body of a tramp, dressing him in a military uniform and setting him adrift off the coast of Spain. The hope was that the forged documents in his pockets would find their way to the Germans, supplying them with crucial misinformation.

A tramp’s body is used in a plot to trick the Germans in Operation Mincemeat, which is based on a real-life story.

Having floated this idea, the challenge for intelligence officers Ewan Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) and their team is to flesh it out, which means finding the right corpse and devising the biography of the imaginary man he represents.

Before we know it we’re in the midst of a brainstorming session. What was this fellow’s name? What would he carry in his wallet? Did he, for instance, have a sweetheart? One of the department secretaries, Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), is asked for an appropriate photo and agrees on the condition she can join the inner sanctum and be part of all the fun.

In a nutshell, it’s a story about putting on a show (I sometimes wonder if showbiz people know how to tell stories about anything else). Ben Affleck’s Argo is a reference point, but Michelle Ashford’s intricate script also suggests a study of the classics of Billy Wilder, an expert in comedy built on sombre foundations.

The core joke is about repressed chaps seizing the chance to escape, projecting their feelings onto the fictional character under construction. A running gag is that everyone seems to be writing a book: there’s even a famous author on hand, the youthful Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), though James Bond is as yet no more than a gleam in his eye.

Like their characters, Madden and Ashford can only express themselves imaginatively within strict limits: they’re obliged to stick to the outline of actual events, and visually the film holds so little interest it could have worked almost as well as a radio play.

Most damagingly, there’s little sign of having absorbed Wilder’s lesson the audience will thank you for letting them put two and two together. (For instance, did Cholmondeley literally have to spell out his name?) All the same, Operation Mincemeat is a genuine surprise package – and prompts nostalgia, if not for the war, then for an almost equally distant era of skilfully crafted entertainment.

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