May 6, 2022 4:18 PM EDT

Even the most imaginative spy novelist couldn’t have made it up: In 1943 a motley group of British operatives created an elaborate false identity for a corpse, which they then sent awash on a beach in Spain, with the aim of throwing the Nazis off the trail of the Allies’ impending invasion of Sicily. This “credible courier,” carrying personal letters and accouterments as well as an all-important fake official document, did exactly as he was told—after all, he had no choice—and ultimately pulled off his mission with grand success, though not without a few nail-biting detours and near-misses. The top-secret plan was dubbed Operation Mincemeat, a suitable name for cobbled-together plot so humble that it could just possibly work.

Now a movie of the same name works a similar homegrown charm. Directed by John Madden—who may be best known for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, a perfectly entertaining bonbon that has somehow become fashionable to deride—Operation Mincemeat, based on Ben Macintyre’s 2010 book, follows the twisting trail of the unwitting war hero Major William Martin, who began life as a decrepit body lingering in a morgue and now lives forever in espionage lore. Commander Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Royal Air Force Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) hatch this farfetched plan but have trouble selling it to the higher-ups, for understandable reasons. It doesn’t help that their personal lives are something of a mess: Montagu is having marital troubles, and his wife has gone off to America with their children. Cholmondeley is shy and awkward—he’s interested in a young woman who works at their office, Jean Leslie (the always captivating Kelly Macdonald), though she doesn’t seem to return his affections—and he feels inferior to his brother, killed in the line of duty and lionized by the men’s grieving mother.

James Fleet as Charles Fraser-Smith, Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu and Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cho
Giles Keyte—Netflix

But their scheme eventually gets the go-ahead, and once they find a suitable stiff, they’re off. Jean is enlisted to help them invent a believable romantic backstory for Major Martin, and her involvement in the scheme creates an awkward love triangle: She develops a crush on Montagu, as Cholmondeley looks on mournfully, though he’s not above a rather cruel act of romantic sabotage. And the woman who holds the intelligence office together, Helen Leggett (Penelope Wilton), a model of efficiency, pens the love letter that’s eventually tucked into Major Martin’s breast pocket—a letter that points to her own experience of lost love in a previous war, an eloquent touch that’s purely moving rather than sentimental.

Aside from the fact that Operation Mincemeat features not one but two former Mr. Darcys (one from the much-loved 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series, the other from Joe Wright’s similarly marvelous 2005 film adaptation), and works beautifully as a romance, it’s also a cracking espionage caper. Even as the deception was unfolding, its participants—especially a Naval intelligence officer, played here by Johnny Flynn, by the name of Ian Fleming—knew it would one day make a great story. The near-failure of Operation Mincemeat, which Madden and screenwriter Michelle Ashford render in tense, crisp detail, makes this story that much more remarkable, and this trim little movie, both funny and grand, does it justice. Major William Martin, God rest his soul, didn’t die for naught.

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

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