In many ways, we're still trying to wrap our heads around what happened at the start of this century when the United States launched its preemptive war on Iraq. The vast majority suspected that their reasoning was unsound and probably illegal, and with each passing year, it becomes clear that this was very much the case. One of the first to try and confirm those suspicions was British whistleblower Katharine Gun, who in 2003 leaked a top-secret memo outlining plans from U.S. and UK intelligence services to influence the UN Security Council to support the war. First outlined in the 2008 book 'The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War', her story is now dramatised in Gavin Hood's 'Official Secrets', a strange little film where the hits almost outweigh the misses.
In 2003, Katharine (Keira Knightly, 'The Imitation Game', 'Anna Karenina') was an employee at GCHQ, part of Britain's intelligence network. After being included in a memo from U.S. intelligence requesting cooperation on surveillance of members of the UN Security Council, Katharine chooses to leak the information for the good of the British people at risk to her own safety and that of her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri, 'Slam', 'Omar'). The leaked memo ends up in the hands of Martin Bright (Matt Smith, TV's 'Doctor Who' and 'The Crown') at The Observer, who pushes to have it published. At risk of being prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act as a spy, Katharine turns to human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes, 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', 'A Bigger Splash') to help make sure her story is made public and those in power are made accountable for leading Britain into an illegal war.
Katharine's story is one of those rare gems, one that moves like a top-notch labyrinthian political thriller while also capturing a decisive and important moment in modern history. For the most part, the screenplay from Gregory Bernstein, Sarah Bernstein and Gavin Hood handles it well, making sure to balance dense exposition with character development. Rightly so, Katharine is made the heart of the narrative, and as much time is given to the personal and professional ramifications of her decision as the decision itself. You are never under any misconception of the enormous risk she is taking by leaking this information, but equally of the great importance of doing so. Where the film begins to falter is in Gavin Hood's ('Eye In The Sky', 'Ender's Game') direction, which is never as rigorous as it should be. It feels strangely devoid of a strong directorial hand or an understanding of how to structure the visual filmmaking of a tight political thriller, unusual considering his experience with the genre. The film never seems to be able find its tone or rhythm, whether with the editing or the performances, and final result feels a little scattered. That said, when it kicks into gear, it really kicks into gear, and the second act - which balances Martin's investigation, Katharine's arrest and Ben building his case - makes for the most thrilling stretch of the film. In that sense, 'Official Secrets' at least gets it right where it matters, and there's no question that the storytelling here is strong. What it misses is a confident hand from Gavin Hood, one willing to be a little more daring or demonstrating a clearer approach.
You are never under any misconception of the enormous risk she is taking by leaking this information, but equally of the great importance of doing so.
Much of the success of the film comes down to the cast, and it's a preposterously stacked one. As well as Knightly, Smith and Fiennes, we have Mathew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Indira Varma, Conleth Hill, Tamsin Greig and Jeremy Northam, and not a single one delivers a bad performance. Knightly has a lot resting on her shoulders, and Katharine isn't the most outward of characters, but her considerable natural talent wins in the end, especially as the film progresses and she emerges from a terrified woman facing an impossible situation to a determined combatant against her lying government. Matt Smith and Ralph Fiennes are both equally great, and it's especially wonderful to see Smith being given a role that asks more of him that we've seen before. Of the terrific ensemble, only Adam Bakri never seems to find his footing, his character never given much space to assert a position within the narrative and never developing a strong enough rapport with Knightly for their relationship to really work.
'Official Secrets' is an odd duck of a film. As much as it never quite finds its groove, it's still an often thrilling and genuinely entertaining film, profiling an important figure in the movement against the Iraq War. Even after all this time, it's still a shock to realise how thoroughly we were lied to, and a film like 'Official Secrets' - even with its flaws - at least makes sure that we're reminded of those lies for the future. It's just a pity the film itself never finds the energy to really propel itself towards something great. It probably would have made a terrific miniseries, but as it stands, 'Official Secrets' is a befuddling yet gripping attempt at a political thriller.