LFF 2019: Official Secrets Review

LFF 2019: Official Secrets Review

Official Secrets (2019)
Dir: Gavin Hood | Cast: Conleth Hill, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes | Writers: Gavin Hood (screenplay), Gregory Bernstein (screenplay), Marcia Mitchell (based on the book "The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion"), Sara Bernstein (screenplay), Thomas Mitchell (based on the book "The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion")

Coming barely two months after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s unlawful suspension of parliament and continued cosying-up to US President Donald Trump, a film in which the UK government is revealed to have conspired with America to seek illegal action could hardly be more timely. In the case of Official Secrets, however, the benefit of hindsight plays a major factor: it is 2003, and GCHQ staffer Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley on blistering form) has come across a document which details Blair and Bush’s plans to blackmail key UN councillors into supporting their invasion of Iraq. 

Exercising a strong moral imperative (one which feels massively absent from current proceedings) and putting not just her life but that of her immigrant husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), in jeopardy, Katharine leaks the memo to an anonymous source. It finds its way into the hands of Observer journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), and then to the papers. While the primary strand of the story concerning Katharine’s inner turmoil and ensuing court case is the most engaging, a lot more screentime is allotted for Bright and co. in the newsrooms. 

The subject matter and Gun’s fight to let the truth ring out could not be more contemporary, but the film’s approach to journalism feels horribly dated: editors and writers shout at each other across bustling offices and pointedly slam papers down on desks (though this appears rather restrained in comparison to a barking Rhys Ifans as foriegn correspondent, Ed Vulliamy).

For all the bluster and some mightily unsubtle scenes of Knightley declaring “Just because you’re the Prime Minister you don’t get to make up your own facts” at her unhearing television, at least there is some sense of justified outrage onto which the audience can latch. One could argue that now is not the time for subtlety, that the murkiness of politics is precisely the reason things have led us from 2003 to now.

It’s a point that a whole variety of films from the past year have dealt with, be they Adam McKay’s Vice or Scott Z. Burns’ The Report; all three essentially positing that the constitutions upon which the US and UK governments are based are broken and corrupt from the ground-up. Official Secrets is the only one to give that a face finds a heart in the blissful moments of peace shared by Katharine and Yasar.

Whether fanciful or not; the conversations between Gun, her husband and her legal team - featuring Ralph Fiennes’ most restrained performance in years - give a voice to the film’s thesis when its rather bland formal aspects fall short. For all the brilliant work being done by a cast at the height of their powers; a humdrum score and dull cinematography - is there a button in editing programmes labelled ‘True Story Thriller’ which applies the same ugly grey colour filter? - makes a poor showcase for an otherwise powerful and engaging story.

Official Secretsis in UK cinemas on October 18th

Overall

Knightley brings gravitas and beleivability to the central role and the moral core of the film is upstanding - a shame its technical side is more run-of-the-mill.

6

out of 10

BFI London Film Festival 2019

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