If there’s one movie genre that never seems to die, it’s World War II. Even more than 80 years after the start of this generation-defining war, filmmakers continue to be fascinated by its wide variety of stories. The latest to try its hand at wooing moviegoers is the British film Ground Meat Operation.
Unlike many other WWII films, this one is mostly set behind the scenes rather than on the battlefield. British naval intelligence officer Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) leads a team that has been tasked with devising a plan to trick the Nazis into believing the Allies will invade Greece instead of Sicily. Joined by fellow intelligence officer Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfayden), MI5 employee Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) and Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), among others, the group comes up with the bold idea of dressing a corpse in military attire. uniform, putting fake papers inside the uniform and literally floating it into the hands of the Germans.
Not everyone agrees with the plan, including Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs), who is keen to put a stop to it from the start. An unexpected love triangle between Montagu, whose wife and children are safe in the United States, also threatens to upend preparations; Cholmondley, a lonely bachelor who lives with his mother; and Leslie, who falls in love with Montagu knowing full well that he is spoken to.
Directed by John Madden and written by Michelle Ashford, the film is part military, part spy, and part moral. The group understands that their plan must be foolproof, and so they think through the fake soldier’s life down to the smallest detail. The scenes where they discover this part of the mission serve two purposes: to show how well the plan has been implemented and to show how close the various members of the group are to each other.
It’s unusual for this kind of movie to spend as much time on romantic entanglements as this one, but things become a bit clearer when you realize the person who occasionally pops up with the narration is Fleming’s character, who would transition to a successful career as the author of spy novels starring a James Bond. While the triangle depicted is much more chaste and down-to-earth than anything Bond would be involved in, you can see the filmmakers taking their hats off to the stories Fleming wrote.
Still, the film sometimes drags a bit due to the amount of lyrics in it. The story that the filmmakers tell understandably contains little action, and so it is replaced by an exposition explaining the action that will take place in the future instead of showing it. Lots of things work, but there are times when they get a little too bogged down in the details.
Firth has been one of the go-to actors for honest and proper English characters for some time, and here he proves once again why that is. His seriousness and almost literal stiff upper lip make him a natural for roles like this. Macfayden is his equal in action, but at least he can play with more emotional undertones. Macdonald, as she has often been in her career, is at the heart of the film, giving her character a quiet strength that elevates both her role and the story as a whole.
Ground Meat Operation is one of those World War II stories that stands out for its audacity, though the thrill of trying to pull it off doesn’t always show up on screen. It’s a useful movie with solid acting, but it won’t be added to the pantheon of great WWII movies.
Ground Meat Operation will debut on Netflix on May 11.