The Official Secrets Act is a legislation that protects state secrets and confidential information pertaining to the security of several countries. It is a provision that not only protects sensitive information, but can also be used by governments and agencies to manipulate particulars. Furthermore, any person who betrays the act faces imprisonment and is forbidden to speak about their work, even to their legal aid in relation to their offence.
Katharine Gun was a government communications analyst in England who received a memo that proved the English and American governments were manipulating Security Council votes to initiate the invasion of Iraq with the explicit objective of going to war. She leaked the memo to The Observer newspaper, which ran the story and ultimately led to her arrest and her very public trial for treason.
Director Gavin Wood (Ender’s Game) tells Gun’s story in his latest political thriller Official Secrets, which sees him return to the political sphere that previously saw him deliver films like Eye in the Sky and Rendition. Despite obvious complexities to Gun’s whistleblowing, Wood approaches her story with as much simplicity as possible. By approaching the material with a focus on her emotional state and the moral code that compelled her to act, he has brought her plight down to the level of a casual observer, a perspective that is easily comprehended and devoid of confusion.
Keira Knightley stars as Gun and gives one of her most impassioned performances to date. Her emotional arc is fascinating to watch as she goes from being outraged and virtuous, to terrified and vulnerable. Her sense of morality, followed by apprehension and regret, is palpable and showcases her undeniable talent. One can feel the tension and fear radiate off the screen as the consequences of her actions unfold before our eyes.
Knightley’s co-stars comprise of an impressive ensemble, including Matt Smith as the journalist who breaks the story, Ralph Fiennes as her tenacious lawyer, and Adam Bakri as her Muslim husband whose own legal-status rests entirely on the outcome of the trial. Other familiar faces include Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans and Jeremy Northam.
Irrespective of the liberal politics of various characters, the film adheres to the general facts of the story, as they more or less occurred, and recounts the events without being overtly political. Of course the entire premise is a condemnation of the Blair and Bush governments of the time, but the film itself pertains to what is now common knowledge and presents the whole episode as a gripping dramatic thriller.
With an absorbing score by Hood’s long-serving composers Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian, paired with a tightly paced script by Hood and Gregory & Sara Bernstein (The Conspirator), Official Secrets is in good company alongside similarly themed films like All the President’s Men, The Post and Spotlight. Its power lies in the performances and Hood’s ability to let the individual nuances inform the story.
In today’s divisive political climate, Official Secrets feels like a timely arrival, and as already mentioned, it avoids any overtly biased leanings as it highlights the importance of media, public interest, disclosure and accountability. The characters might have strong political leanings, but the film feels more cautionary than it does persuasive or influential. And regardless of all that, it is an absolute nail-biting story that my poor mangled fingernails can certainly attest to.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Official Secrets’ opens in Australian cinemas on November 21.