OFFICIAL SECRETS – Review
Keira Knightley takes a break from period costumes to star in the true-story based political thriller OFFICIAL SECRETS, about a British intelligence specialist turns whistle-blower in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
South African writer/director Gavin Hood has built a reputation for thoughtful dramas focused on timely topics with ethical complexities, starting with the Oscar-winning TSOTSI. Hood has also directed action films like X_MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE but he has recently offered up drama with serious subjects but featuring big enough stars to get the subject wide audience attention. In the Helen Mirren-starring EYE IN THE SKY, Hood spotlighted the complex human and ethical issues underlying drone strikes. This time Hood focuses on the case of a British intelligence analyst who decided the public’s right to know about government lies being used to justify going to war was worth the risk of breaking the Official Secrets Act oath she signed when she joined the British intelligence, and risk being tried for treason.
The excellent British cast includes Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode, and Rhys Ifans. The story is set in 2003, as the Bush administration is making the case for the invasion of Iraq. Writer/director Gavin Hood uses the issues the story raises to connect to the present. Hood focuses on the people involved and the ethical dilemma and complex decision they face. As with EYE IN THE SKY, Hood’s calm focus on the facts and human drama lets the audience draw their own conclusions rather than pushing a point-of-view, apart from reminding us of the human element in these political issues.
Keira Knightley plays Katharine Gun, a low-level office worker in the British intelligence service. Gun’s job is little more than clerical and routine but like everyone else in the building, she had to sign the Official Secrets Act agreement to work there. She rarely, if ever, sees anything of importance as she transcribes or translates messages but one day she is sent a startling memo in which the British government is asked to participate in questionable actiont as the Bush administration lays the groundwork to justify invading Iraq. The memo from the NSA reveals a plan to enlist Britain’s help in collecting compromising information on United Nations Security Council members, with the intention of blackmailing them into voting in favor of invading Iraq.
She is so shocked by the top-secret memo that she wonders if it was sent to her by mistake, until she learns all her co-workers received it as well.
Gun is so disturbed by the way the British, and global, public are being deceived to justify the Iraq invasion, that she eventually secretly shared the information in the memo with an activist friend. That activist passes it along the a journalist, and in the ensuing explosion of coverage, the British intelligence launches a hunt for the leaker.
The film actually opens with Keira Knightley’s character on trial, so we already know she will revealed as that leaker. Those who remember this recent history will know the basic facts of the outcome but may not know the details of what happened to Katharine Gun, so there is an element of suspense. Gun’s situation is further complicated by the fact that her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) is an Iraqi Kurdish immigrant, which sparks suspicion in the officials investigating the case. Although he is a legal resident and married to a British citizen, he is at risk, as his wife.
Hood uses this recent history to connect to the present and make us think about the ethical and moral dilemmas we face now. Hood builds tension and suspense, and we are on edge about Katharine’s fate, even if we know what happened with Iraq. Still, the director’s fact-focused but human-centered approach invites the audience to think calmly and deeply about what the characters are grappling with and to connect with them emotionally.
Knightley does her usual excellent job, helping us connect emotionally with this sincere young woman and her tension-filled situation. She is well supported by the rest of the cast, with a particularly nice performance by Fiennes in a pivotal role as her barrister.
Once again, Gavin Hood delivers a thought-provoking film on a serious topic that is also gripping human drama. OFFICIAL SECRETS opens Friday, Sept. 13, at Plaza Frontenac.
RATING: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars