Pride & Prejudice is a film that I will never tire of watching, but as we know Keira Knightley is more than just a period piece actress. Cinema spotlights life in all forms and fashions, and filmmaker Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets offers up one of Knightley’s most razor sharp performances.
Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) worked for the United Kingdom’s GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) as a translator, and her intensive job was balanced by a loving relationship with her Muslim husband Yasar (Adam Bakri). A memo from the U.S. requesting GCHQ employees unearth compromising material on members of the U.N. Security Council is met with frustration and shock by Gun. As a government agent, Gun was bound by The Official Secrets Act of 1989, but she leaked the memo in an attempt to inform British citizens (and, of course, the world) of this unthinkable action.
No good deed goes unpunished, and being a whistle-blower can lead one to become a hero and a traitor to one’s country. Journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), with help from fellow Observer reporter Ed Vulliamy (a scene stealing Rhys Ifans) and editor Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode) covered the story which should have spread like wildfire as soon as it printed (in a nice bit of nostalgia, newspapers had a stronger pull back in 2003!). Steadfast journalism and whistle-blowing should be front page material in any publication or TV outlet, but initially this report is met with pushback by the U.S. media.
The Iraq War pushed forward on its own, and Gun’s actions didn’t stop this runaway train, and most of Official Secrets takes an intimate look at the trials and tribulations of Gun’s journey. Some viewers may even question her decision, as Yasar’s immigration status was threatened during this period and a stint in prison was also in the offing.
Director Gavin Hood, whose own thoughts on military engagement and the price of war are documented in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Ender’s Game, and Eye in the Sky, subtly places that thread into Official Secrets. Credit goes to Hood for portraying Gun as a real human being with severe doubts about her act, and Knightley effectively portrays a brave woman who is understandably torn up by what she has done. Ralph Fiennes co-stars in the feature as Ben Emmerson, a respected barrister who takes Gun’s case.
Hood also takes a page from first rate political dramas from yesteryear which spotlighted A-list casts (John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May and Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent come to mind). With Official Secrets, the finest British actors have come to play with Knightley and Hood (landing Indira Varma in a relatively small role as Emmerson’s colleague was a coup).
In previous features, Hood had special effects and modern day technology (Eye in the Sky) to ramp up the visceral thrills of his storylines, but with Official Secrets the “special effect” are his actors. With a talented ensemble in tow and a lack of preachy exposition, Official Secrets is a surprisingly tense political drama. We may know Gun’s fate since it’s based on a true story, but getting to that inevitable day makes for an engaging experience.
Official Secrets also follows the journalists’ dogged pursuit of the truth and Emmerson’s own journey in aiding Gun, so essentially viewers will get three stories for the price of one. Thanks to steady pacing and editing, a seamless storytelling flow ensues, and its 112 minute running time never felt extraneous.
Katharine Gun’s story deserves a much bigger spotlight, and if you’re in the mood for a political thriller that should keep you glued ’till the final moments, Official Secrets doesn’t disappoint.
Rating: 4 out of 5
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