Official Secrets is the true to life story of Katharine Gun, a British whistleblower who broke the 2003 lies leading to the Iraqi invasion. Keira Knightley has a strong performance and director Gavin Hood builds strong, dramatic tension, which doesn’t always work. Hood, who gave us 2015’s Eye in the Sky returns with another government, covert spy–type thriller.
Official Secrets is the story of whistleblower 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 Kamal Ahmed (Ray Panthaki) live a modest life. Hood goes to great lengths to build Katharine’s social structure 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, don’t use the actual whistleblowing event as the film’s centerpiece, rather they let that mull and stew as the ramifications of what Katharine has done unfolds. They instead focus on her resolve, her standing up to the system when it starts to hunt for the mole.
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 and a rather crotchety, but optimistic barrister, Ben Emmerson played by Ralph Fiennes.
Matt Smith plays Martin Bright, a journalist with The Observer. 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. Both men answer to Roger Alton (Conleth Hill), who spurs them on in their investigations. 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 that I had with this film was not with Hood’s direction. In fact, I think he did an exceptional job at building tension, which permeates the story throughout most of the film’s run time. 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 humor and calm 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.
For performances alone, I would recommend Official Secrets.
Official Secrets is in theaters now and is rated R by the MPAA.
All photos courtesy of IFC Films.