Official Secrets offers moving performance by Knightley in mixed bag of tension

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Courtesy IFC Films

After directing 2015’s Eye in the Sky, an astonishing thriller based on real world events and featuring hardly any expository dialogue, South African-born director Gavin Hood returns to a similar world of war and ethics. With Official Secrets, Hood explores a story “based on true events.” Even though Eye in the Sky featured some fantastical departures on spying and drone warfare, it never detracted from the moral dilemma at the heart of the film. In his latest, however, real life sometimes seeps into driving the drama via dialogue designed to conveniently lay out the stakes but delivering with mixed results.

Eye in the Sky featured plenty of action sequences, and it stands to bear comparison to another drone warfare film that this critic reviewed earlier that same year that somehow succumbed to may too much exposition (Good Kill drowns its moral message on drone war with too much exposition). Hood has proven accomplished at pushing drama with action, so it’s a disappointment that he leans on a script that lays issues out so directly in a movie about the leaking of a secret British government memo that portended the Bush administration’s false pretenses to declare war on Iraq in 2003. It’s hard not to notice these moments in the overly long film packed a bit too full of redundant moments.

Courtesy IFC Films

The film is headlined by the always talented Keira Knightley as whistle blower Katharine Gun, who worked at the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters during this time. Hired for her skill to speak and understand several languages, she’s tasked with translating communications that might threaten the security of England. When a memo goes out to staff about U.S. plans to strong arm the U.N. Security Council into declaring war on Iraq, it triggers moral red flags in Kat. So begins the internal moral drama of whether she should voice those concerns in public and risk going to prison or look the other way, even though she is aware that there is no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, the film deals a lot with language and morality. It features some terrific performances, including appearances by Matt Smith and Ralph Fiennes that will convince you of the moral passion that drives their characters, journalist Martin Bright and Gun’s defense attorney Ben Emmerson, respectively. Then there are those people who inhabit more subtler moments of moral conflict, including the oft sinister Peter Guinness as a Scotland Yard detective brought in for the initial investigation of Gun. 

Courtesy IFC Films

Though the movie has some moments of over-acting — on top of spelling out the quandary of the events — there are sequences that feel genuinely moving. Even though they feel redundant, it’s touching to watch Gun find a voice for her genuine motivation. “I don’t gather intelligence so the government can lie to the British people,” she says at one point. Knightley’s performance is a build up of coming into her moral imperative. Kat eases into her personal sense of authenticity to do what’s morally right in the face of what’s legally permissible across the duration of the film. It’s not easy work. Kat’s fear of the system certainly seems to weigh on her conscience in many scenes and Knightley wears the weariness touchingly if not relatablely. Early on, she yells at the TV when president George W. Bush and Tony Blair, the UK prime minister at the time, appear in a joint news conference to push for war. Meanwhile, her struggles of what to say during various scenes of questioning, be it by her superiors or her defense attorneys, are subtly tempered with rage and fear. This all builds toward those moments when Gun can expressively be true to her motivations. It’s a moving thing to experience such dramatic yet subtle character development.

There are also some sequences in the movie that outright entertain. The scenes with Smith as Bright, who was the first to write about the memo in “The Observer,” feature some fun insight into the cynical world of the British press, where typos can make for a rather tragic undoing of evidence. There’s a truly tense moment that sees Kat’s Kurdish husband Kamal (Ray Panthaki) getting snagged by the police for deportation. It’s a shame that it all happens so unevenly against some rather dispassionate scenes designed to provide bridges to the plot. Official Secrets waxes and wanes like this over the course of its near two-hour run time to make for a decent film that should have been so much better.

Hans Morgenstern

Official Secrets runs 112 minutes and is rated R. It opens in our South Florida area in the following counties and theaters:

For screenings in other parts of the U.S., check local listings. IFC Films sent us an online screener for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2019 by Independent Ethos. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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