Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Gavin Hood

Stars: Kiera Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Adam Bakri, Jeremy Northam, Conleth Hill, Tamsin Greig.

Keira Knightley and T. Mark Owens in Official Secrets (2019)

This is quite a tense, topical and thought-provoking drama based on the true story of Katherine Gun, a whistle blower who tried to stop the invasion of Iraq by leaking an official memo to the press.

Gun (played here by Kiera Knightley) worked as a low level Mandarin translator for the GCHQ, Britain’s spy outfit that eavesdropped on communications. Her job was to screen classified information and write digests for her superiors. In 2003 she happened upon a top-secret NSA memo that revealed how the US was gathering compromising personal information on members of the United Nations Security Council in order to blackmail them into supporting an upcoming motion to invade Iraq as a follow up from the 9/11 attack. British PM Tony Blair was bullish in his support for President Bush and the US invasion, citing the justification of WMDs. Gun is aware that Blair’s justifications are based on a lie, aimed at obfuscating the truth, and is unsure what to do.

After wrestling with her conscience, she leaks the document to an anti-war campaigner, and it eventually makes its way to the press. The sensational headlines rocked the political world. Gun and her husband Yaser (Adam Bakri), a Kurdish refugee who she married to guarantee he gained political asylum, find themselves under threat. Katherine is eventually charged with treason under the Official Secrets Act while Yaser is threatened with deportation. Gun seeks the aid of Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), a veteran lawyer with the Liberty Human Rights organisation, who takes up her defence. Even talking to a lawyer though is a further breach of her “treasonable behaviour” according to the government officials.

Official Secrets is a study of the blatant abuse of government power and the lengths at which it is prepared to go to cover up its deceptions and lies to justify an illegal war. It also shows the emotional and physical cost of being a whistle blower exposing some inconvenient truths in this era. In this it makes for a great companion piece to the recent The Report, in which a US Senate staffer (played by Adam Driver) is tasked with compiling a detailed report exposing the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques (ie: torture) during the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Oscar winning South African director Gavin Hood (who has delved into the darker side of the war on terror in films like Rendition and the suspenseful drone warfare thriller Eye In The Sky) ratchets up the suspense and imbues the material with a palpable sense of anger and urgency. Hood and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister have shot the film using a darkened colour palette that adds to its menacing and ominous tone.

The incisive and thoroughly researched script is based on the 2008 non-fiction book The Spy Who Tried To Stop A War: Katherine Gun And The Secret Plot To Sanction The Iraq War, which was written by journalists Marcia and Thomas Mitchell and depicted Gun’s heroic but ultimately futile efforts to prevent an unnecessary war. The script was written by Hood and Gregory and Sara Bernstein and they take some liberties with the truth for dramatic purposes. And as with films like All The President’s Men, the recent Spotlight and The Post it highlights the urgent need for journalists and a free press willing to take risks to expose government malfeasance, lies and cover ups to the public despite official threats and sanctions. All of this gives this gripping political thriller a contemporary relevance.

Knightley, taking a break from her usual period dramas, is good here and brings a suitable intensity and conviction to her performance as the idealistic Katherine, whose moral stance puts her at odds with the full might of the British government. She brings a steely focus and sympathy to her performance. Fiennes brings a touch of gravitas to his role as the lawyer who defends her. Former Doctor Who star Matt Smith is also good as Martin Bright, the journalist who broke the controversial story for The Observer. Rhys Ifans brings some comic relief to the material with his over the top turn as Washington based investigative journalist Ed Vulliamy.

A scathing attack on the government’s illegal war in Iraq and a story that demanded to be told, Official Secrets is another fine political drama from Hood.


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