Ground Meat Operation, a richly engaging World War II spy drama from director John Madden, opens with voice-over narration that argues that a good story contains what is seen, and also what is hidden. Over the course of more than two hours, the film then continues to illustrate this axiom and dig into its deeper truths.
Based on compelling and improbable real events, the film contains enough plot and period detail to satisfy the type of hardcore subgenre enthusiasts who made Time Life Books’ exhaustive 39-volume World War II series. world a perennial. Father’s Day gift. But it is also shot through with a humanizing sense of uncertainty, moral complication and even melancholy about the way this work weighs on its practitioners, making for a thoroughly uplifting experience even for viewers who traditionally avoid war dramas. .
In early 1943, as Allied forces ponder a plan to break Axis power and break Adolf Hitler’s hold over occupied Europe, they face a formidable challenge. A frontal assault on Sicily is the most logical, but also the most obvious. In an effort to mitigate the casualties, the “Twenty Committee”, a special British intelligence interdepartmental team, undertakes a disinformation campaign. Their aim is to trick Germany and Italy into believing that the Allied point of attack is in fact Greece, and to redirect some of their forces accordingly.
As part of this strategy, intelligence officers Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) seize upon a disposable detail in an old wartime memo credited to their superior, Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), and championed by out-of-the-box thinker and aspiring novelist Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn). The idea, of course inspired by Basil Thomson The milliner’s hatis to plant deceptive military documents on the body of a dead soldier in order to deceive the Nazis.
Despite Godfrey not having much faith in the ruse, the aforementioned couple are tasked with carrying it out and, encouraged by Fleming, they set about bringing the plan to life. Ewen and Charles begin by obtaining the body of a recently deceased homeless man, then construct an elaborate personal history for the new Captain William Martin. Months of meticulous work culminate in her placement off Huelva in southern Spain, an ideal location for a variety of reasons. From there, an entirely separate game plays out, trying to ensure that the corresponding false documents end up in the hands of German agents.
All those spy plots and narrative density are reminiscent of Firth’s 2011 Cold War-era spy thriller Tinker Tailor Spy Soldier. Like this movie Ground Meat Operation is a well-crafted project that invites the public to sink into the enveloping procedural crevices of its history. Based on Ben Macintyre’s book of the same title and adapted for the screen by Michelle Ashford, the script is a marvel of condensed structure, artfully channeling bureaucratic and political machinations through compelling characters. More importantly, though, there’s a certain elegiac quality that hovers over the entire film without overshadowing or smothering its thriller elements.
The basic story here (previously adapted in 1956 The man who never was, starring Clifton Webb, as well as a recent stage show) would be easy to sell just for its more outlandish elements and numerous feints. But in the hands of Ashford, the creator of masters of sex and also Emmy nominated for The pacificit becomes something more deeply thought out.
The character of Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), an MI5 employee who provides a cherished photo to the fictional Martin and then uses it to embed himself further in the plot, at first seems like a questionable or distracting inclusion in a story already unlikely. Ashford, however, develops Leslie in order to fathom all of the surrounding characters with greater insight. It establishes a sort of love triangle between Ewen, Jean, and Charles, creating tension without ever giving in to the consumerism that would truly qualify the film as a romantic drama. Ewen, a Jew whose family was sent to America, develops a strong bond with the widower Jean, who returns the depth of his feelings to him. The unfortunate Charles, meanwhile, working in secret and living with a mother who yearns for his war hero brother, harbors an unrequited crush on Jean. The way these characters collectively build this “Bill and Pam” backstory, getting romantic about a fully constructed love story, deepens their characterizations in a touching way that heightens the story as a whole.
Nor does Ashford shy away from the inherent absurdity of the story, despite the seriousness of its stakes. She allows for gallows humor, taking particular pleasure in concocting a sequence in which Godfrey tortures his accusations for a flawless rewrite of military correspondence. She also folds a number of Easter eggs (Fleming is said to have actually written part of Godfrey’s initial, so-called “Trout Memo”) that will bring amused smiles from James Bond fans.
British director Madden remains best known in the US for helming the Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in love. But despite a filmography dotted with many of the genre’s most stereotypical films associated with English filmmakers, he knows this specific time and place just as well (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) and political thrillers more generally (Debt). Working closely with cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov and editor Victoria Boydell, Madden crafts an unassuming and engaging film that feels both tidy and expansive, neat and propulsive. His poise and deft touch with the film’s counterintelligence plot – which culminates in a third act featuring double or sometimes triple agents – is atypical among his peers, many of whom would feel the need to adopt a style more aggressive visual.
The film’s performances also fit together quite attractively. Isaacs’ unwelcoming and disturbed demeanor seems to fuel Firth’s buttoned-up frankness perfectly, giving Godfrey the suspicion that Ewen’s eccentric and communist-sympathetic younger brother, Ivor (Mark Gatiss), is a Russian spy a layer of intrigue. parallel. Macfadyen imbues Charles with poignant sadness, while Macdonald similarly conveys a range of tangled intimate feelings. Together, this basic trio provides Ground Meat Operation with a lively sense of story, and show that a strong sense of duty doesn’t have to be a shiny and simple thing – that it can be weighted with all kinds of ambiguities, color motivations different and, yes, regrets.