Official Secrets (2019)
Director: Gavin Hood
Screenwriters: Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood
Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Ralph Fiennes, Katherine Kelly, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Tamsin Greig, Shaun Dooley
Keira Knightley is the lead of a star-studded British cast for X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Eye in the Sky director Gavin Hood’s retrospective reevaluation of British national sins that, despite a rocky start filled with expository dialogue and just about every trope of the thriller genre you can imagine, manages to provide a solid telling of an important story that may not keep you on the edge of your seat like the very best of the genre but certainly won’t have you itching for your money back either. Consider this what would have happened if the BBC had made Steven Spielberg’s The Post.
Based on the true events of a British government agent named Katharine Gun who leaked a memo sent to her organisation by the NSA, the crux of Official Secrets’ story is the moral implication of the American desire to illegally spy on their United Nations counterparts in an attempt to find leverage on enough of a number of national representatives to push through a UN resolution for their war in Iraq, the second Gulf War from the early 2000s.
Set against the backdrop of opposition that the illegal war faced at the time, Official Secrets has little motivation to get into the why of its position opposite the war and instead focuses on outlining the journey of its heroine; tacking information regarding morality, factual innacuracies, lies and deception, and our current position on the events, onto as much of the dialogue as possible in order to fit in everything it feels we need to know.
The narrative therefore functions in a very linear and event-focused manner, the film progressing through moments in history as opposed to moments personal to the characters; it’s very much a “we know this happened on this date so that goes next” approach to the screenplay, which removes a lot of the intimacy from the film’s central characters and makes for a picture that seems to jump around from the personal plight of a woman under investigation for espionage to the newspapers covering it and right through to the lawyers on either side of the moral debate; the event-led focus removing any chance of a tangible connection to the characters and unfortunately eliminating the opportunity to truly understand the bravery of the film’s protagonist as a result.
Knightley’s Katherine seems to be the access point for today’s audiences – she has a somewhat ahead-of-her-time passion and attitude towards critiquing the news and is shown to be strong in her opposition to governmental threats – but she is a character seemingly built from hindsight, and is developed in the performance and on the page as an avatar for today’s more politically involved, vocal audiences. There is, therefore, somewhat of a disconnect between the character and the rest of the film, the other parts seeming to intently project forward the narrative with more interesting, time-appropriate and believable characters.
Perhaps the biggest reason this seems to have been the case is the film’s lack of focus on Knightley’s Katherine Gun. The Irishman proved that you can effectively tell a tale of historically accurate moments with a profound and focused character perspective in the modern age, yet Official Secrets seemed to go for long periods forgetting about its protagonist’s troubles, sometimes only revisiting her to show us how she was refusing to get out of bed because of the stress of her situation, and playing off side characters who were important to her as bit-part players with little more than a few lines from which she could establish any real grounding as a character. Katherine Gun, until the final few moments when the real woman at the centre of the true story is revealed in footage from the trial, is paper thin and 2-dimensional, and Keira Knightley simply isn’t strong enough as a performer to pull her from that mire.
This is in stark contrast to Matt Smith and Ralph Fiennes who excel at elevating their bit-part characters into points of interest as the movie ticks on. Fiennes in particular finds an emotional heartbeat for the piece to latch onto in the latter half of its run-time, but neither man is given enough of a character base from which to truly define the quality of the release; their performances improving upon a picture hindered by predictable narrative beats and a lack of creativity in the mise-en-scene, but the entire film inevitably coming across as exactly what you might expect from a mediocre BBC political drama.
The story behind Official Secrets is clearly an incredibly interesting and timely one, and there’s no doubt that the film does come to offer some semblence of an emotional impact by its finale, but this particular release does also largely use the real-life story as a crutch to help it take shortcuts, and the finished result is an effective but not affecting political thriller that leaves you wondering “would a documentary on the subject would have been more exciting, emotionally impactful and informative?”