The eternally talented Conleth Hill delivers a line in Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets that sums up exactly how I feel about the film. He, as his character Roger Alton, the head of The Observer newspaper, labels the government leak at the heart of the film, “One hell of a story”. And I wholeheartedly agree, which is what makes Official Secrets such a powerful and important film. The telling of the tale may struggle to unravel at times, yet still, the sheer weight and shock of everything occurring is always apparent and impactful.
Official Secrets is aptly titled after the UK’s government act designed to ensure that government secrets don’t make their way into the hands of the public, and we follow the most high-profile breaker of the laws contained within the act. Katherine Gun (Keira Knightley) worked at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and, despite the term sounding rather superficial when based in reality, she was a spy.
Her job was to translate messages intercepted by GCHQ, and she did just that until the danger of impending war began to amount in 2003 as the UN pondered a vote to legalise an invasion of Iraq. It was then that GCHQ forwarded her an email that would change her life forever. The email, initially sent by a member of the US National Security Agency, contained clear orders to spy on nations of the UN who weren’t dedicated to legalising the war for them to be blackmailed into doing so.
From here, we see the incredibly brave Katherine put the lives of so many before her own as she leaks the document to the press in an effort to prevent the war. The consequences of this are what the film is about; however, we do split into what feels like two distinctly different stories. We follow the men responsible for publishing the leak, most importantly the man who wrote the article, Martin Bright (Matt Smith).
The sequences inside The Observer office debating whether to support the pro-war Tony Blair or to publish the document they have come to obtain illegally are some of the films best, but all the chaos and unique intensity of these scenes is not combined particularly well. Director Gavin Hood fails to find a balance between the two sides of the story he tells, and it does the film an unfortunate disservice.
This leads into what saves the film from becoming a mess, the masterful work from Keira Knightly, Matt Smith and the man who plays Katherine’s lawyer Ben Emmerson, Ralph Fiennes. Each of them forms the beating heart of Official Secrets and display all the talents that made them enduring and endearing performers for as long as they have been. Matt Smith is especially brilliant, not because he betters his counterparts, but due to his role being so unlike his work in The Crown and Doctor Who.
Here Smith makes for a journalist genuinely worth rooting for as he fights for a story his paper didn’t want to tell. Knightly stirs as her character faces imprisonment, her ability to convincingly display the concoction of courage and despair is put on display throughout and is moving at every turn. And Fiennes finds the perfect pitch to be a consummate professional who still has it in him to do what he can to uphold justice. Even when confronted with a woman who had admitted her guilt, he never backs down and eloquently does everything he can.
Official Secrets knows how important telling Katherine’s story is which leads to plenty of monologues of from individuals taking a stand. Yet, here they do the actors justice and actually manage to make an impact. Indeed, there is only one detracting flaw in the script, the sheer amount of times the words “official secrets” are spoken. It happens so often it becomes comically jarring, which simply shouldn’t be happening. Otherwise, the script shines a kind light on the incredibly suspicious actions in the lead up to the Iraq war, and makes clear the importance of those who did all they could to bring those actions to light.
Official Secrets plays like two movies that eventually meet, and while it may not work how intended, the three stars are so good it doesn’t matter, and everything begins to click.
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