Official Secrets

Kiera Knightley in 'Official Secrets.' (Official Secrets Holdings, LLC)
Kiera Knightley in 'Official Secrets.' (Official Secrets Holdings, LLC)


2003. As politicians in Britain and the US angle to invade Iraq, GCHQ translator Katharine Gun leaks a classified e-mail that urges spying on members of the UN Security Council to force through the resolution to go to war. Charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act, and facing imprisonment, Katharine and her lawyers set out to defend her actions. With her life, liberty and marriage threatened, she must stand up for what she believes in.


A clear spiritual successor to films like The Post, Spotlight and, most pertinently, All the President’s Men, Official Secrets is another politically charged look at the silent war between those individuals who fight fiercely for the truth and those in power who would use all manner of lies to exert their power over those they see as being beneath them. It’s a film that questions the notion of patriotism and the role of a free press and in a time when the president of the United States calls the free press an "enemy of the people", it could hardly be timelier or more relevant.

The main difference this time, though, is that it’s a story told from the perspective of the whistleblower more so than the journalists who break the story (though they certainly get their fair share of screen time too). Of course, unlike the man who brought down the Nixon White House, the Deep Throat of our story has a name but, until now, has been under-acknowledged for her heroic attempt to save literally thousands of lives. Hopefully, Official Secrets will change that.

Keira Knightley may look nothing at all like Katharine Gun, but justice is more than done to the real-life hero of Official Secrets in a performance that is nuanced, expertly controlled, impassioned and incredibly sympathetic. Despite it looking like Knightley won’t be bound for awards glory in this upcoming awards season, she has seldom been better than she is here and elevates what is otherwise a fairly conventional, occasionally too broad telling of an incredible real-life story.

Not that there’s too much to object to about the film otherwise. Aside for having a great performance at its centre and an extraordinary true story at its heart, it’s competently if straightforwardly directed by Gavin Hood, who also co-writes the perfectly solid if, again, fairly straightforward script with the husband and wife team of Sara and Gregory Bernstein. This may seem like damning with the faintest of praise, but there is something to be said for not getting in the way of the film’s leading lady and the tale of her real-life counterpart. 

The film could be wittier, more stylish, and more intense, perhaps, but when a story begs to be told as much as this one does, less may well be more. It certainly kept me engaged throughout, and its messages about the sanctity of the truth, the need to speak truth to power, and the power of the individual, all come through with both clarity and poignancy. It also once again shows how wrong-headed, at the very best, the war in Iraq was but, at this point, how many people still need to be convinced of that?

This sort of film can become overly earnest, perhaps even dour, but Official Secrets mostly overcomes that by having top actors like Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and, most notably, Rhys Ifans giving spirited performances that may have none of the subtlety or complexity of Knightley’s wonderful lead performance but they do give the film a certain zip; a sense of humour even.

The slight tonal inconsistency and clear concessions to playing to mainstream audiences looking for an enjoyable night out could easily have sunk the film, so it’s to Hood and his co-conspirators' credit that its attempt to play to the widest possible audience gives it a certain buoyancy instead.