“Official Secrets” is the dramatic story of Katherine Gun’s exposure of a clandestine attempt to expose Britain’s illegal entry into the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Director Gavin Hood (“Eye in the Sky”) creates strong tension, and Keira Knightley leads a strong ensemble, but the nature of the case leaves nowhere for the narrative tension to be effectively released. For the performances alone, “Official Secrets” is Recommended.
A story is nothing without a central thesis, something that unites the characters’ motivations with their growth, be it positive or negative, or rather change. Change, therefore can be micro or macro as it manifests and morphs. In the case of Gavin Hood’s “Official Secrets,” the change happens so quickly in the first act that it leaves the remainder of the film with nowhere to really go.
“Official Secrets” is the story of whistleblower Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), a civilian employee of the Joint Technical Language Service, a division of the British GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) who blows the lid on an illegal spying operation regarding the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Katharine Gun is a very unassuming individual, who with her partner Yasar Gun (Adam Bakri) live a modest life. Hood goes to great lengths to build Katharine’s social structure and her beliefs as a way of currying the audience’s empathy with her plight when she finally decides to take action.
Hood, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein, doesn’t use the actual whistleblowing event as the film’s centerpiece. They let that fact mull and stew as the ramifications of what Katharine has done unfolds. This was done to focus her resolve, her standing up to the system when it starts to hunt for the mole; something that should resonate with audiences today. Knightley’s emotions are front and center throughout the initial debacle, but nothing prepares her for the forthcoming onslaught of the one, rather simplistic, but overreaching law on the books in Britain, that of the Official Secrets Act of 1989.
It is during the second and third act, as the ramifications for herself and her family are fully realized, Hood’s direction is taught, and he is effective at building tension. The story introduces several characters, including the police officers who keep Gun under surveillance, the media who are in a position to give her case and plight visbility, and a rather crotchety, but optimistic barrister, Ben Emmerson played by Ralph Fiennes.
Matt Smith plays Martin Bright, a journalist with The Guardian. Matthew Goode played Peter Beaumont and together, like Woodward and Bernstein gave Gun a voice during the ordeal, pressuring the system for the author of the original communication. Smith is a steady hand and Goode fills in some of the background on the effects of the military presence in the Gulf to that point. They don’t necessarily tie into the court case, which fell to Fiennes’ Ben Emmerson as much as they continue to define who Gun is.
The challenge lay not with Hood’s direction, but with the stalemate of the resolution. In fact, Hood did an exceptional job at building tension, which permeates the story with Knightley’s emotional state. The tension became counterproductive though once the story gets into the court case, when her legal team try to ask the British government for records related to the legality of the war in Iraq.
This is where Fiennes really shines. His droll, dry humor and calmness under pressure ease us into Gun’s plight which continues to layer tension over tension. And, just as quickly as the entire event started, it comes to a halting, rather, arresting conclusion.
“Official Secrets”, much like the dramatic story is a double entendre. It offers a glimpse into the British legal system and its tangled web while also referring to a rather innocuous law which holds government employees to the highest standard and allowing no quarter in revealing information.
There is a moment at the end of the film, which offers a bit of levity, effectively releasing some of the tension, but like many docudramas, it doesn’t go far enough in satiating the entirety of the story.
“Official Secrets” is expanding slowly through out the U.S. and is now playing in Phoenix exclusively at Harkins Camelview.
Directed by: Gavin Hood
Screenplay by: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood
Based on “The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War” by: Marcia & Thomas Mitchell
Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Adam Bakri, Ralph Fiennes
R, 112 minutes, An IFC Films Release