Directed by Gavin Hood. Starring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Jeremy Northam.
The Plot: It’s 2003 and the UK is gearing up to invade Iraq along with the US as part of an allegedly legal war involving Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) works an intelligence officer in the UK signals intelligence branch, intercepting and interpreting recorded conversations. Along with her other colleagues, she receives an e-mail from the US National Security Agency, which suggests that spies will attempt to push the UN Security Council to sanction and therefore legitimise this war. Katharine’s conscience gets the better of her and she leaks the e-mail to the press, where it reaches Guardian journalist Martin (Matt Smith). She hopes to expose illegal Government actions which could affect the lives of thousands. However, she is bound by the Official Secrets Act and faces a nervous wait to see if the slowly exploding story will be traced back to her…
The Verdict: Platoon used the tagline ‘the first casualty of war is innocence’ – in the Vietnam battlefield anyway. New based on a true story drama Official Secrets uses the tagline ‘The truth is always the first casualty of war’, the battlefield here being a war of words and an intimidation game from the UK Government towards one of its employees, Katharine Gun as she attempts to expose the truth. She blew the whistle on suspected illegal activity in an attempt to mask an even greater illegal activity – the invasion of Iraq in 2004. Official Secrets is a steadily nerve-wracking dramatisation of those events, which expands out from Katharine’s story to also include investigative journalists, sources, lawyers and prosecutors who all find themselves either for or against Katharine’s own illegal act – or so it’s claimed. As the story unfolds and draws the viewer in, there’s more to it than initially appears. She may have a point – is it illegal to break the law and expose Government wrongdoing in the process?
That’s the basis of the carefully paced script by Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein and director Gavin Hood, based on the book The Spy Who Tried To Stop A War: Katharine Gun And The Secret Plot To Sanction The Iraq Invasion. One person may seem small against the huge war machine of Government, but Gun’s story highlights a need for accountability from our institutions and Governments. The script doesn’t have All The President’s Men-level of investigative detail. Instead, there are hushed conversations with sources in underground car parks (a nod towards Deep Throat), at tennis courts and social occasions. While this dissipates some of the narrative tension involved, it hints at the trail heading back to Katharine and potentially exploding in her face and affecting her married life. It’s that slow burn turn towards a courtroom drama which keeps the plot ticking along… but then Hood flips expectations and doesn’t quite give you that. It’s just as well – Hood doesn’t want you to think ahead to the outcome.
Hood is less interested in courtroom showdown theatrics and more interested in what’s going on in Katharine’s mind to make her want to sacrifice nearly everything for the truth. Some issues are just bigger than any one person’s life. The South African filmmaker has made increasingly political films in recent years. While Eye In The Sky was a condemnation of remote control warfare and its collateral damage, Official Secrets tackles the thorny and often labyrinthine legal aspects of warfare. It’s not as dry as it sounds and is occasionally amusing, thanks an excellent supporting cast that includes Game Of Thrones co-stars Conleth Hill and Indira Varma, along with Matt Smith and an excellent Ralph Fiennes as a sharp-minded lawyer with an even sharper tongue. Knightley continues to make smart choices about her roles, playing down the glamour and playing up the dramatic weight of her character facing a rocky and uncertain future. Forget the pout. She’s a fine actor when she wants to be. Don’t keep it a secret. Official Secrets is a consistently engaging drama with real dramatic weight in the story, performances and focused direction by Hood.