"Official Secrets" (2019)- Movie Review

Written and Directed by Gavin Hood
Co-written by Gregory and Sara Bernstein
Starring Keira Knightley, Matt Smith and Ralph Fiennes

‘A Tense Political Thriller’

When it comes to the most heroic whistleblowers in Britain’s history, Katharine Gun is definitely one of them. In 2003, Gun made worldwide headlines when she leaked a confidential memo to the British press. The memo described the United States’ plan to eavesdrop on diplomats from countries and blackmail them into approving the Iraq War. Not only did the memo violate ethics, but it revealed the deception of the British government. Refusing to remain silent, Gun put her own career on the line to expose the truth. Given Hollywood’s long-running obsession with whistleblowers, Katharine Gun’s story seems appropriate for cinematic treatment. It is surprising, then, that this true story has never been told on the big-screen.

Now, Gavin Hood brings the fact-based story to the big-screen for the first time in his latest film “Official Secrets”. A gripping, informative and timely political thriller, it offers a fascinating look at the events leading up to the Iraq War. With his eighth feature, writer/director Gavin Hood has crafted an authentic account of Katharine Gun’s exhaustive crusade to leak confidential information. Packed with spellbinding cinematography, riveting storytelling and powerful performances, it is a highly effective political thriller. Although “Official Secrets” is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It is unevenly paced, and suffers from a lack of compelling character development. Nonetheless, it offers taut entertainment that will satisfy fans of investigative dramas.

Based on actual events, “Official Secrets” tells the true story of a whistleblower and her fight to stop an unjust war. Keira Knightley stars in the lead role as Katharine Gun, a dedicated Intelligence Specialist that works for the GCHQ. Gun is a virtuous woman that takes an active stance against war. However, her life forever changes when she receives an NSA memo detailing the United States’ decision to blackmail U.N. countries into voting for the Iraq War. As Gun uncovers scandalous secrets, she soon becomes determined to expose the truth.

Writer/director Gavin Hood is no stranger to themes of political intrigue. His previous feature “Eye in the Sky” was praised for its authentic depiction of drone warfare and its impact on soldiers. With “Official Secrets”, however, Hood has crafted his first docudrama on a whistleblower. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to dramatize Katharine Gun’s crusade to leak a top-secret memo, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using captivating cinematography, Hood draws viewers into the life of a righteous woman seeking the truth. From intimate close-ups to anxiety-inducing long shots, the cinematography keeps viewers immersed in the film’s setting. It gives the movie a dark and ominous atmosphere that is reminiscent of political thrillers from the 1970’s. Working alongside cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, Hood creates a stunning film in which each frame captures the consequences faced by whistleblowers. Hood excels at recreating the scandal that preceded the Iraq War, and his latest feature is worth watching for this reason alone.

If stories of courageous spies do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “Official Secrets”. The film is extremely well-written, and offers an eye-opening look at the corruption of modern-day governments. Hood’s screenplay is spectacular, and arguably the main highlight of the movie. Filled with intelligent dialogue, timely themes and parallel storytelling, the script elevates the movie to another level. Hood’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is his ability to defy viewer expectations by telling two parallel stories in conjunction. In Hollywood, most movies follow a formulaic three-act structure with a beginning, middle and end. This often leaves no room for surprises and detracts from the quality of the movie-going experience. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “Official Secrets”. The film deftly switches back and forth between two stories: Katharine Gun’s personal strife and the journalists investigating the memo. Through this unique parallel narrative, Hood crafts a film that is utterly suspenseful. Parallel storytelling is a risky technique to employ in a political drama, but it works tremendously in this movie. Using an engaging screenplay, Hood keeps viewers engrossed in a world of espionage.

In terms of acting, the entire ensemble is at the top of its game. Every star gets the chance to shine, but the film is mainly a stunning showcase for its leading lady.

Keira Knightley delivers her finest performance to date as Katharine Gun. Knightley has spent most of her career playing infatuated heroines in romantic period pieces. With “Official Secrets”, however, she takes on her most serious role to date. It is not easy to portray a controversial whistleblower that betrayed her country. It’s a complex role that requires a certain degree of commitment, but Knightley pulls it off effortlessly. With riveting expressions, she conveys the bravery, determination and tenacity of the woman that risked everything to stop an unjust war. It’s a powerful performance from one of the most seasoned actresses working today.

The supporting cast is excellent and also worthy of recognition. Matt Smith is sensational and brings a sly sense of humor to the movie as an astute investigative journalist. Ralph Fiennes is fantastic and imbues shades of humanity into the righteous lawyer Ben Emerson. And finally, it is hard to not mention Adam Bakri. As Katharine’s downtrodden husband, he earns the viewer’s sympathy.

Although “Official Secrets” is undeniably a powerful political thriller, ultimately it is not a flawless film. If there’s one area where the film falters, it is in the pacing department. Hood’s decision to split the film’s narrative into two parallel stories is bold and innovative, but it doesn’t entirely work. It hinders the pacing, and detracts from the entertainment-value of the movie. Due to this technique, the newsroom sequences in the film are less engaging than the scenes depicting Katharine Gun’s life. Moreover, the film suffers from a lack of character development. For instance, the investigative journalists are impassive individuals that are rarely seen outside the workplace. It is hard to relate to the characters because we barely get to know them on a personal level. Political thrillers thrive based on the timeless appeal of their characters, and in this regard “Official Secrets” falls short of expectations.

On a final note, it is worth mentioning that “Official Secrets” is one of those movies that aren’t meant for everyone. Given its provocative themes, the film may not please mainstream audiences. The film tackles controversial topics such as the Iraq War, government deception and religious persecution that will upset some viewers. Viewers that are not interested in British politics may find it hard to follow the story. Due to its complicated subject matter, the film may not appeal towards commercial audiences.

Nevertheless, fans of political thrillers will definitely enjoy “Official Secrets” and so will movie-goers seeking enlightening entertainment. A powerful piece of filmmaking, it sheds light on a little-known scandal in Britain’s history. At a time when government corruption remains a pertinent issue in the world, it’s a rousing reminder that the stories of valiant whistleblowers are worth retelling on the big-screen.

3.5/5 stars

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