Home > Reviews > OPERATION MINCEMEAT – Thomas Newman

OPERATION MINCEMEAT – Thomas Newman

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In 1943, at the height of World War II, two British intelligence officers, Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu, devised a plan to deceive the Axis powers into thinking that the upcoming allied invasion of Sicily – intended to free the island from German and Italian control – would take place elsewhere in the Mediterranean. To this end they procured the corpse of a recently-deceased man and dressed it up with the fictional identity of a non-existent Royal Marine named Major William Martin. The plan was to drop the body off the coast of Spain where the Mediterranean currents would carry it close to a German base; on the body, the British planted fake ‘top secret documents’ indicating that the Allies were intending to liberate Greece rather than Sicily, and then take the Germans by surprise when the real target was attacked. The plan – codenamed Operation Mincemeat – was a rousing success, the island was liberated, and the whole thing played an enormous part in the eventual toppling of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. This new film from director John Madden examines the whole operation in great detail; it stars Colin Firth as Montagu, Matthew MacFadyen as Cholmondeley, and has an excellent supporting cast including Kelly MacDonald, Penelope Wilton, Jason Isaacs, Johnny Flynn as Ian Fleming, and Simon Russell Beale as Winston Churchill.

The score for Operation Mincemeat is by Thomas Newman, who previously scored The Debt, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for director Madden. Newman has been working on British films quite a lot recently, most likely as a result of the success of the James Bond films Skyfall and Spectre, and has already tackled films about both World War I and World War II in Tolkien and 1917. As one would expect, Operation Mincemeat does share some tonal similarities with all those scores, but for the most part tends to be lighter and more effervescent, as befits the underlying ‘comedy caper’ feel of the film as a whole.

It’s interesting how, over the course of the past decade or so, Thomas Newman has slowly moved away from the rich orchestral tones that dominated his most popular works (Little Women, The Shawshank Redemption, Meet Joe Black, among others), and is now much more interested in writing more minimalist, percussive, pseudo-abstract music focused mostly on electronics. That’s not to say he doesn’t use a large orchestra, or that he doesn’t lay waste with a beautiful theme every now and then, because he absolutely does – but it’s more the fact that, on the whole, Newman seems to be less flashy, more subtle, more restrained than he was in his 1990s heyday. Operation Mincemeat is another score like that; it contains all the familiar Newmanisms that have come to define his recent career, from the unusual metallic percussive ideas, to George Doering’s big box of guitars, to the lilting ethnic flutes, the moody piano chords, and the melodious and soothing soft string tones.

One thing that’s missing from this score in particular, though, is thematic content. Despite Newman being one of the best melody writers of his generation, Operation Mincemeat is almost entirely lacking it – it’s a score which deals almost entirely in texture and rhythm, offering varying degrees of percussive intensity and changes in orchestration to differentiate between cues, but containing virtually no recurring thematic ideas. This is supremely disappointing because, despite how much I enjoy Newman’s textures and idiosyncratic instrumental combinations, it’s themes that anchor a score with an identity. Operation Mincemeat is curiously identity-less.

One other thing that drops in Operation Mincemeat’s negative column is the lack of anything that would place it in a specific time period or location. Absolutely nothing in the score speaks to its 1940s setting, or the exotic locales to which the film travels. This could be happening anywhere, at any time, from the United States in the 1950s, to Cold War Germany, to a spaceship on its way to a new world – the music gives nothing away. There’s an argument to be made that pinning music down to a time and place takes away from the universality of its emotions, but some distinctiveness would have made the score stand out from the rest of Newman’s filmography. As it stands, it’s temporally and geographically anonymous.

That’s not to say that the music is in any way bad, because it isn’t, and anyone who appreciates Newman’s unique approach to film music will find lots to enjoy. There is plenty of his quirky synth and piano writing, doubled with trilling flutes, full of movement and texture; cues like “Iris,” “Deader and Deader,” and many others, showcase this style. Scenes set within the British Ministry of Defence and its wartime situation rooms are busy pseudoclassical pastiches, full of energy and urgency, featuring harpsichords, guitars, and other metallic percussion ideas darting around underneath lithe strings. Cues like “Room 13,” the more serious “Briefcase in Madrid,” “Haversack Ruse,” and others, convey the sense of determination and purpose Cholmondeley and Montagu show to complete their mission.

Similarly, some of the scenes involving more serious moments of spycraft and espionage see Newman engaging in some slightly more insistent writing. The opening cue, “Submarine Rises,” slowly grows from a soft, understated opening for pianos and synths, until it culminates in an action packed finale full of surging strings. Subsequent cues such as “Holy Loch,” “The Burial is Set,” the excellent “A Missing Eyelash,” and especially the energetic and prickly “Fifth Column” build on these ideas superbly. These are counterbalanced by cues like “Our Story Begins,” “Single Diamond Ring,” and the extended “Gulf of Cádiz,” all of which are almost entirely moody and ethereal, concerned mostly with dream-like electronic textures.

The cues that will likely appeal most to people are the ones which recall Newman’s emotional writing from the past, and from these a truly excellent 15-20 minutes of music can be gleaned. “Fresh as a Daisy” has a mood not too dissimilar from The Shawshank Redemption, “Last Lovely Golden Day” is built around an elegant and longing cello solo, and both “Officer in the Royal Marines” and “Dangerous Waters” are warmer and more sentimental, featuring some lovely writing for strings, lilting woodwinds, and poignant pianos.

The six-minute title cue, “Operation Mincemeat,” is an extended exercise in tension building, which gradually develops into an forceful finale with a vibrant orchestral scope, featuring prominent brass, string ostinatos, and clattering percussion, as well as some crushing electronic dissonance. The highlight cue of the score, for me, is the subsequent “Limited Casualties,” where Newman finally unleashes the score’s full emotional potential with some elegant, moving writing for lyrical strings – including an especially tender solo cello – and warm brass. The sweep of the finale is really quite superb.

I guess, ultimately, you really have to be a Thomas Newman devotee to appreciate Operation Mincemeat. It’s a score which takes all the familiar mannerisms and tropes that have dominated his output over the last decade or so, and re-arranges them just enough for them to be different from scores like Passengers, The Highwaymen, Tolkien, and the less flamboyant parts of 1917, even though they clearly belong to the same sonic world. As I mentioned earlier, the thing that really holds Operation Mincemeat back is its lack of thematic content – it’s all texture, all tone, no melody. This really hampers its potential for memorability, and leaves you with a pervasive feeling of musical anonymity that is difficult to shake. As a listening experience it’s completely acceptable – Newman’s scores usually always are – but a film like this, with a story this interesting and a setting this compelling, could have used something a little less familiar.

Buy the Operation Mincemeat soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Submarine Rises (3:22)
  • Iris (1:21)
  • Room 13 (1:45)
  • Fresh as a Daisy (2:21)
  • Briefcase in Madrid (3:31)
  • Our Story Begins… (3:13)
  • Single Diamond Ring (2:13)
  • I’m Going to Get Lit up (When the Lights Go up in London) (written by Hubert Gregg, performed by Carroll Gibbons & The Savoy Hotel Orphean) (2:37)
  • Gulf of Cádiz (5:01)
  • War Hero (1:45)
  • Deader and Deader (0:56)
  • Last Lovely Golden Day (2:33)
  • Haversack Ruse (1:39)
  • Toast (0:50)
  • Holy Loch (2:19)
  • Dull as Ditchwater (1:01)
  • Fishwife (1:31)
  • Jean Leslie (1:21)
  • Peckin’ (written by Harry James and Ben Pollack, performed by Roger Wilson, Martin Litton, Richard Henry, Peter Rudeforth, Gary Crosby, Denys Baptiste, Colin Skinner & Richard Pite) (3:41)
  • The Burial is Set (1:16)
  • Officer in the Royal Marines (1:56)
  • Dangerous Waters (1:36)
  • A Missing Eyelash (2:20)
  • Fifth Column (3:35)
  • A Spy Under My Roof (2:29)
  • Operation Mincemeat (6:10)
  • Limited Casualties (2:44)
  • Fallen Soldier (written and performed by James Morgan) (1:57)
  • Personal and Most Secret (3:07)

Running Time: 69 minutes 57 seconds

Lakeshore Records LKS-36215 (2022)

Music composed by Thomas Newman. Conducted by John Ashton Thomas. Orchestrations by J.A.C. Redford. Recorded and mixed by Shinnosuke Miyazawa. Edited by Peter Clarke. Album produced by Thomas Newman.

  1. Kevin
    May 13, 2022 at 10:02 am

    Yeah, this score definitely sounds like a more developed follow-up to 1917, which I loved.

    On a side note, I was wondering if you could take a listen to Newman’s score to Scent of a Woman for your Throwback series. It’s one of his best early scores (up there with Shawshank, in my opinion) but it is so underrated and overlooked, despite the movie itself being somewhat famous.

    • May 13, 2022 at 10:05 am

      Yep, it’s on the schedule for December, corresponding to when the film came out.

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