Storytelling school

John Madden tackles love, war and storytelling in Operation Mincemeat

It’s been almost 24 years since John Madden gave us Shakespeare in love, the Oscar-winning comedy-drama set during the writing and starring of Romeo and Juliet. The new film of the famous director, Ground Meat Operationalso deals with the lasting impact of a great story, although the setting and circumstances are quite different.

Photo courtesy of Giles Keyte and See-Saw Films

“It’s such an extraordinary story, from its lowest level of granularity to the highest areas of the halls of power,” Madden says of Ben Mac Intireit is non-fiction book, which served as the inspiration for the film. The book was brought to Madden by a friend, michelle ashfordcreator and executive producer of the famous Showtime series masters of sex. While working together on the development of this series, with Madden directing the pilot episode, Ashford came across Ground Meat Operationand offered Madden a collaboration, with Ashford writing and Madden directing.

“Cholmondeley’s attraction to Jean quickly trumps the sparks between William and his beloved Pam, a fabricated love affair between two people who never existed.”

In 1943, Hitler had a firm grip on Europe during World War II. The Allies were planning an assault on the Axis stronghold in Sicily, but it was vital that Hitler’s forces were concentrated elsewhere. Ground Meat Operation was the code name given to a plan led by two intelligence officers, Ewen Montagü and Charles Cholmondeleywho conspired to leak false information to the Germans by Major Guillaume Martin. The plan was for Martin to be found dead, washed up on shore off the coast of Spain. He would carry correspondence between generals, indicating that an attack on Sicily was only a ruse to divert the enemy from the planned invasions of Greece and Sardinia. He would also be entirely fictional, a made-up character played by a body taken from the morgue.

Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley and Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu.
Photo courtesy of Giles Keyte/See-Saw Films

Martin would only live in the realm of the imagination, carefully crafted by Montagu and Cholmondeley, who are portrayed in the film by Colin Firth and Matthew MacFadyen. If these two names conjure up similar romantic images in your mind, it’s with good reason. It wasn’t until Madden told Firth’s agent that he cast McFadyen as Cholmondeley that the director made the connection. “He said, ‘My God, that’s two Darcys!’ Madden said with a hearty laugh. Firth played the iconic Mr. Darcy in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Jane Austenit is Pride and Prejudicee, while McFadyen would later play the role in Joe Wright2005 film adaptation. Although the connection never even came to Madden during their casting, he admits it adds a sublime note of grace to the unconventional romantic story at the center of Ground Meat Operation.

In order to make Major Martin a fully believable person with a complex story and backstory, Montagu and Cholmondeley decided to include a love letter to a lover at home, to be placed on the body. In the film, the writing of the letter and the detailed creation of the relationship between William and his beloved falls to Montagu and Leslie Jean (Kelly McDonald), a widowed government worker who is first recruited to provide her photo to be used in the letter, but she walks up to a seat at the operation’s planning table. Cholmondeley’s attraction to Jean quickly trumps the sparks between William and his beloved Pam, a made-up romance between two people who never existed.

“They can’t tear themselves away from each other’s company because of the intensity of what they’re trying to do.”

Lorne Macfadyen as Glyndwr Michael, Paul Ritter as Bentley Purchase, Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley and Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu.
Photo courtesy of Giles Keyte/See-Saw Films

Montagu and Jean, however, are alone and real, and they find that their emotional investment begins to spill over into their work. “People who’ve fallen in love don’t know they’ve done it,” Madden says. “They can’t see that clearly. They just know that they love fulfilling this fiction immensely. They can’t tear themselves away from each other’s company because of the intensity of what they’re trying to do. Madden admits there may be a small echo of Shakespeare in lovewhere Will Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps’ feelings for each other are so deeply rooted in those of the characters in Romeo and Juliet.

Madden has grown accustomed to working with the cream of the crop when it comes to pitching his movies, whether guiding Gwyneth Paltrow and Lady Judi Dench at the Oscars or at the casting Jessica Chastain in one of his first leading roles in Debt. But when it comes to what type of actor he’s attracted to, Madden isn’t sure he has one. “Boldness in an actor is an absolutely priceless quality,” says Madden. “One of the things that was wonderful about this movie [was that] there are some very small incidental characters who take the film in their hands and hold it for a while – I take as an example an incredibly talented actress, Gabrielle Crevy.” Creevy is a Welsh actress who has a very small role as Doris Michaelthe sister of Glyndwr Michaelthe homeless man whose body was used to play Major Martin. “She’s quite brilliant, and she stops the film in its tracks. And she’s surrounded by Colin Firth, Mathhew McFadyen, Johnny Flynn and the delay, great Paul Ritter, and totally commands the stage… It’s just talent, that’s what it is. And a gift. So that’s what I would say you’re hoping to find.

For John Madden, who is in his fourth decade of directing for the screen, Ground Meat Operation, which comes to select theaters May 6 and Netflix May 11, is a remarkable entry into a magnificent career. For audiences, it promises to be one of the most satisfying experiences of the summer movie season. –Patrick Gibbs

Read more interviews with filmmakers by Patrick Gibbs:
LDS history meets murder mystery in Under the banner of heaven
Simchas and sorrows Find comedy in relationships and religion