[NOTE: An official selection of the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival]
Intensely dramatic, journalistic dramas are really nothing considerably new, especially in a decade where DC and Boston’s heritage newspapers were highlighted in Oscar-bait films; one of them did win Best Picture, though one is still lost as to why it had earned that honor. The latest to join that class of drama, Official Secrets, is perhaps a bit lost in the crowd. Yet through Keira Knightley’s commanding leading role, a major step up from the rest of her leading lady fare in recent memory, there’s enough to allow it to stand in front of its nearest opposition, where the pieces fit nicely. And yet it won’t make any giant waves, at least with most American audiences.
Inspired by an investigative novel by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, director Gavin Hood (returning to familiar territory following 2015’s drone-centric Eye in the Sky), and co-writers Gregory and Sara Bernstein (Trial and Error) center their film around an incident inside Britain’s GCHQ, in early 2000s London. At that time, Katherine Gun (Knightley) was operating as an internal translator, using her fluent second and third languages to track down otherwise secretive correspondence from other nations. Her level of clearance causes her to stumble upon an email chain where her organization is in close communique with the NSA. The intended goal: spy on U.N. Security Council members being targeted for an influential blackmail chain to potentially vote for a war on Iraq.
This early evidence leaves Miss Gun a bit sick to her stomach, viewpoints on morality on red alert. Already, she’s confident her own country’s government has let her down more than once, Prime Minister Blair purposefully misdirecting his citizens in his support for the war. Otherwise a normally timid individual, doing her job with nary a complaint, Katherine, in a state of pure panic and frustration, admits to accidentally leaking the disastrous blackmail to the press, particularly to the readers of the London Observer, treating it like a major exclusive as if their careers depended on it. It turns out to be a major violation of the UK’s Official Secrets Act, which she is tried under, and which Hood emphasizes much of the plotline on, with all the intricate staunchness such an old-school institution could muster. Really, the only solution she and her supporters see as fit in order to win the case: challenge the law, and prove her actions were just, in order to prevent an unwarranted global war.
Katherine’s sense of right and wrong is therefore placed firmly under the microscope, stepping on that dividing line between hero for the voiceless, and a traitor to her country. Add on top the strength she must maintain for her doting husband Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Turkish immigrant applying for British citizenship, but whose status may be threatened in the obvious ripple effect. Her impressive legal consultants, led by the prominent Ben Emmerston (Ralph Fiennes), only want the best to come from her crusade. Those at the Observer, led by the plucky Martin Bright (The Crown’s Matt Smith), are just looking to get all the facts right, and they contribute well to what one-third of the film amounts to.
Hood, Bernstein, and Bernstein are essentially mixing between a critique on the media, a low-key exchange of common espionage tactics, and where it excels best, a tawdry courtroom thriller that doesn’t rely so much on relationships as it does straightforward ethics. The combo of these three does equal a sufficient dose of dramatic filmmaking, even if the mixture itself is a bit unbalanced in portions. I’d have liked to perhaps see a bit more of the court, and particularly Fiennes’s ability to observe control even when saying so little. The same could be said toward Bright and second-in-command Ed Vulliamy (an exuberant Rhys Ifans). But their common bickering nature over an equal ethical quandary is perhaps enough to keep them an essential viewpoint on the larger issue.
It’s up to Knightley to really tie everything together, even justifying those moments where Hood’s direction grows a trifle lapse. She manages to succeed at a little of both, delivering her strongest on-screen performance in some time (The Aftermath was a mild dud, her Nutcracker Sugar Plum character coming off mildly abrasive). Here, she is a solemn, passive individual finally rising to the ripe occasion of political justice, vulnerable as a wounded animal in the face of mild surveillance, scared for her life, and yet determined to maintain emotional strength. Even as the buildup toward Katherine’s eventual trial appearance grows tiresome; heck, a brutal sequence involving Yasar’s deliberate deportation in a manner of blackmail on behalf of the government can only go so far to amp the intensity. But she remains on solid footing throughout, regardless of just where the outcome lies.
If you’d seen Benedict Cumberbatch in The Fifth Estate or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden, chances are you’ll be experiencing some small, symbolic déjà vu occurring on screen. Official Secrets is barely any different, as far as whistleblower and media-focused dramas, but not so much espionage thrillers (evidence to the latter is few and far between). It runs through overly familiar territory, and yet can accomplish a small victory in differentiating itself from the competition through Knightley and Fiennes’s convincing argument for mere integrity and transparency, in our government institutions, in the laws they enact, and in the people who make it look like news.
Of course, Katherine Gum couldn’t necessarily stop the war, only prove its illegality. Smaller pieces of our larger history that just make for decent filmmaking, working as well for the casual viewer as for political science students. Not quite ideal, thematically inadequate, but still fresh, smartly executed and ironically relevant. Especially when it comes to ensuring the facts are correct, and wholly separate from what would otherwise be the “spin.” (B-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Official Secrets is currently playing in limited release, opening in Seattle on September 13; rated R for language; 112 minutes.