Are you British and reading this piece at the age of 94? If so, as you will know, you may actually have fought in the second world war. Widen the metric to anyone born by the end of the conflict, and the demographic swells: 76 and up. Even so, the greater part of the country could only know the era through parents, grandparents or grandparents’ parents. Yet January has still begun with two new depictions of wartime Blighty. Such is British film. Whatever year the calendar says it is, the nation’s cinema is always here to put an arm a little too tightly around your shoulder and pull you into a fusty back room to look at its Airfix Lancaster Bombers.
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The first of the new films, Munich: The Edge of War, adapted from Robert Harris’s novel, in fact unfolds in the last moments of peace, as Hitler carved up Czechoslovakia. Dial forward to 1943 and the second movie is Operation Mincemeat, a true story of deception plotted in a Whitehall basement. In each, the Nazi menace looms before expertly tensed British actors. The cast of Mincemeat is led by Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen; in Munich, Jeremy Irons is Neville Chamberlain, George MacKay a jittery adviser.
Britain has made a remarkable amount of films about the war. But as with any genre, not every one is alike. Moods change. Like canny politicians, the trick is to channel them. To make the right war film at the right time, tuned into the British id.
So something telling may be happening with these two new movies. In each, patriotism now comes with caveats. The atmosphere is less than triumphal. Of course, Munich could hardly fail to be downbeat. But if Operation Mincemeat is a tale told with the larky air of a heist movie, cynicism colours it, too. Of its two leads, Macfadyen is overshadowed within his own family by a dead war-hero brother. Firth also has sibling issues. His is suspected of being a communist spy. And in British high command, plenty are as interested in personal vendettas and their own postwar careers as thoughts of noble sacrifice.
It makes quite a contrast with the last cluster of British war films, which began in 2016 with the release of Dad’s Army. A few months later came Their Finest, Gemma Arterton cast as a scriptwriter drafted into a propaganda …….