Operation Mincemeat

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: War Spy Drama

Availability: In theatres

Plot: Operation Mincemeat (1943) was a highly unlikely, but nevertheless true, military deception that tricked Hitler and ultimately led an important Allied victory in World War II. This new film of the same name, and directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) has clearly been strongly influenced by the book Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben Macintyre (https://erenow.net/ww/operation-mincemeat/). I mention this, as there are apparent absurdities in the plot that make the film seem very silly in places – indeed it might even be dismissed as a preposterous exaggeration by filmmakers who have taken undue liberties with the truth. In reality, if Macintyre’s book is anything to go by, the film may even have tried to make the plot more plausible, something I will return to later. In any event, it tells the story of an outlandish plan by the British intelligence service to deceive their German counterparts into thinking that the Allies would attack Greece, rather than the expected target, Sicily. Diverting Germany’s attention away from Sicily would increase their chances of success, significantly advantaging allied forces in their efforts to make inroads into Europe. The ruse involves a dead body washing up on the shores of Spain, and the creation of a fictionalised identity of a man, Bill Martin, who would ultimately become a British hero. 

Filming and Setting: The wonderful recreation of WWII London has the hallmarks of a quality production, and its attention to detail makes for splendid cinematography. There are excellent scenes that contrast the seriousness of combat in war, with the passionate but nevertheless detached activities of those working in intelligence, whose job it was to strategically outwit the enemy. Despite this, while Operation Mincemeat comes across as having all the marks of a sharp, contemporary production, it has an old-fashioned feel to it, almost as if it’s constrained within an 1950s filmmaking era that is characterised by derring-do antics…a melodrama without the pathos. 

Cast: Four main characters drive the film’s action. Colin Firth is very good as the reserved Ewen Montagu, the British naval officer credited with leading Operation Mincemeat. By all accounts a privileged individual, Firth certainly looks the part and carries the role with aplomb. His romantic interest, Jean Leslie, a secretary in MI5 and played by Kelly MacDonald, is also very good. While they work well together, there is a lack of romantic chemistry between them, something that the film needed to pull off given it paid so much attention to their relationship. In Macintyre’s book there is evidence that during the time Ewen and Jean worked together at Naval Intelligence, each identified strongly with the two fictional characters in the ruse – Bill Martin, and his fiancée Pam. Simulating the roles, Ewen courted ‘Pam’ writing endless letters to her in the guise of Bill. Jean would write back to her imaginary fiancé signing herself off as Pam. It’s a relationship oddity that the film does not include, probably wisely since it seems implausible in the extreme. Instead, the film offers a soapy love triangle between three main characters, Ewen, Jean and Charles Cholmondeley the grounded flight lieutenant who originally came up with the Operation Mincemeat deception idea. This romantic subplot doesn’t work particularly well, despite a standout performance by Matthew Macfadyen as Cholmondeley, who does bring considerable depth to his character. 

Personal Comments: Operation Mincemeat is very entertaining, amusing at times, and most certainly intriguing as it brings this extraordinary real-life story to the screen. Scarcely believable, despite being closely aligned with Macintyre’s research, it’s a story that might have come directly from the pages of a spy novel by Ian Fleming, who also makes a surprising appearance in the film. So if you like an historical war drama it’s certainly worth seeing, although you might find the love triangle a bit over the top. That said, if the filmmakers had gone entirely by the book, the truth may have been even stranger than fiction.


Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Cold War historical spy drama

Availability: Netflix – Portuguese with English subtitles

Plot: Award winning Portuguese director Tiago Guedes and creator/script writer Pedro Lopes bring this espionage drama to the screen. It is 1968, during the last year of the reign of Portugal’s ruthless dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar. Russia is about to invade Czechoslovakia, and the US is re-transmitting Radio Free Europe propaganda over the Iron Curtain from Portugal in an attempt to undermine Russia’s military efforts. The headquarters of the independent Sociedade Anónima de Rádio Retransmissão, or RARET as it became known, was established in Glória do Ribatejo, a small town north of Lisbon – hence the title of the series. It soon becomes a centre of political subterfuge. Much of the fictional action takes place in RARET where Russian, US and Portuguese spies engage in undercover activities that are characterised by terrifying brutality. Glória uses historical events (see https://pressroom.rferl.org/a/31477985.html) as an effective backdrop to this drama and the series has become a big success for Netflix. 

Filming and Setting: Much of Glória was filmed in the Portuguese region of Ribatejo, using the abandoned complex of RARET and the surrounding countryside to great effect. And the effect is, indeed, spectacular. The cinematography and the authentic recreation of Portugal in the 1960s – the cars, the buildings, the interior decor, the costumes – makes this series visually captivating. RARET is mid-century modern architecture at its best. In addition, the storyline does not resile from Portugal’s dark domestic, political and colonial histories. Salazar’s fascist regime is in full view along with the ruthless brutality of its secret police (PIDE), the KGB and the CIA. 

Cast: Miguel Nunes is terrific in the complex role of João Videl, the son of the Portuguese Minister and Secretary of State. Joãl has been recruited by KGB master spy, Alexander Petrovsky, played chillingly by Adriano Luz. When Joãl says he doesn’t want to kill innocent people, Petrovsky calmly replies that nobody is innocent. Great performances from both actors. The CIA agents James Wilson (Matt Rippy) and his wife Anne Wilson (Stephanie Vogt) are also unsettlingly impressive, as is the nasty Ramiro (João Pedro Vaz), who epitomises the misogynistic values of the time. 

Personal Comments: Nobody is as they seem in this series, and it makes for a gripping spy drama. It might be a bit of a slow-burn at times, and the ending may be a bit discombobulating. It is nevertheless seriously intriguing, exploring, as it does, a political context that is likely to be unfamiliar to many of us. If you like a well-made espionage thriller, you will enjoy this one.

Anxious People

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Categorisation: Police comedy drama

Availability: Netflix – Swedish with English subtitles

Plot: Swedish author Fredrik Backman is getting quite a reputation, not only for his terrific novels, but also their successful adaptation to the screen. In 2016 director Hannes Holm adapted Backman’s debut novel, the funny and poignant New York Times best seller A Man Called Ove. It was hugely popular at the box office. Now, director Felix Herngren and scriptwriter Calila Ahlgren have adapted Backman’s recent novel, Anxious People, for Netflix. This police comedy drama tells the story of Jim and Jack, father and son, who are also colleagues in the Swedish Police. They live together too, and right from the start we get the sense of the warm relationship between them. It’s New Year’s Eve, and Jack is having his annual haircut. It’s only half done when the hairdresser spots a bank robbery occurring just metres away. Unfortunately for the robber, it’s a cash-less bank and the heist is abandoned. Jack and Jim haphazardly give chase, only to find themselves in the middle of a hostage drama. The robber escapes by entering a nearby apartment, then unintentionally hijacks an ‘open home’, imprisoning all of its potential home-buyers. While Jack investigates, the half-hour episodes delve into the personal experiences of everyone involved, and the fascinating relationships that form between them. 

Filming and Setting: The filming takes place in Södertälje, a small town not far from Stockholm. Calling it a ‘cosy little town’, Herngren chose the location primarily because of its close proximity to the Swedish capital and the saving that could be made when transporting actors and crew. As it happens, Södertälje is a rather lovely place with attractive buildings that the filmmakers were able to commandeer for the series. 

Cast: Expertly managing the balance of humour and pathos, all the cast do well in this series. In six short episodes we get to know Jack, played wonderfully by comedian/actor Alfred Svensson, and Jim, played equally well by the experienced Dan Ekborg. We also get to know all the hostages – a tribute to filmmaker technique as well as the quality of the performances. It’s quite a feat in six short episodes. The bizarre circumstances of the plot are curious, and the humorous dialogue is compelling. Sometimes it’s slapstick as in the predicament of the ‘rabbit man’ in the apartment. At other times it’s cleverly understated – watch the hairdresser follow Jack around with her scissors as he tries to manage the hostage situation. It is very funny. At the same time, this troupe of excellent actors impressively portray their character’s vulnerabilities, their anxieties, and the sorrows in their lives.

Personal Comments: I think this is a terrific series. By the end of the first half hour, we were completely hooked and we watched the whole thing in one sitting. Focusing episodes on different hostages and telling the story from their perspective is an effective strategy. As a consequence, despite the shortness of the episodes, we gain considerable insight into each character, deepening our appreciation of where they fit into the clever plot. The plot, incidentally, also holds up pretty well under scrutiny. As we know, humour is culturally embedded, and for non-Swedes it may feel somewhat unusual at first. But if you like quirky, with a good dose of ‘sock and buskin’, you might just like this one.

The Girl from Oslo

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ 

Categorisation: Drama thriller

Availability: Netflix – English subtitles

Plot: This is a Danish/Israeli collaboration telling the story of a young Danish woman, Pia, who travels to Israel and then to Sinai, where she is kidnapped by ISIS operatives. Her parents, Alex and Karl, only discover she has left the country when they arrive at her apartment with a birthday surprise. After a few days of no contact from Pia, Alex decides to follow her to Israel where she applies pressure to her diplomatic contacts to return her daughter to safety. Alex visits Arik, the Israeli Intelligence Minister, with whom she has worked closely in the past, particularly on the 1992 Oslo Accords. Back home in Denmark, a senior member of ISIS, Abu Salim, is imprisoned on terrorism charges. Pia is an ISIS hostage and becomes a bargaining chip for a prisoner exchange. Pia’s father, Karl, is a senior judge in Denmark, and while Alex works on Pia’s release in Israel, he remains in Denmark in the hope of putting pressure on the Danish authorities to exchange Abu Salim for his daughter. This is nevertheless complicated by the Danish government policy of non-negotiation with terrorists. We then follow the action in Denmark, Israel and Palestine as they engage in the dangers of hostage negotiation. 

Filming and Setting: In this series co-directors Stian Kristiansen and Uri Barbash take us across multiple locations in Israel and Palestine, providing spectacular desert aerial views and wonderful scenes in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Denmark. This is a real strength of the series.

Cast: With the possible exceptions of Anders T. Andersen playing Karl and Raida Adon as the enigmatic Layla, both of whom provide mature performances, the rest of the cast struggle to provide authenticity in their roles. Anneke von der Lippe as Pia’s mother Alex is the most irritating. Her reckless behaviour along with her excessively melodramatic demeanour is completely at odds with her diplomatic background. It’s difficult to imagine her successfully negotiating any conflicting situation, let alone a peace accord. 

Personal Comments: The question of Palestinian statehood has been explored in film before, for me most memorably in the 2014 series, The Honourable Woman. Unfortunately, The Girl from Oslo is nowhere near that calibre. Despite its visual authenticity and its fast-paced twists and turns, the plot is unlikely and the series overall lacks credibility. If you are after a really good hostage series I’d stick with The Honourable Woman.