Before the Sundance premiere of Official Secrets, an introduction named it one of many films during the festival that focuses on a character taking on the system. It proved to be an unavoidable and unfortunate reminder of The Report, Scott Z Burns’s thrilling, similarly themed and similarly talky political drama that premiered just days earlier. While that film, about an investigation into the CIA’s post-9/11 torture practices, avoided cliche and construct, the Eye in the Sky director Gavin Hood has delivered a far more traditional and at times stuffy tale, one that might be more suited to the small screen.
Hood’s major ace is Keira Knightley, whose rousing lead performance adds a much-needed fire, igniting the pedestrian-level drama around her. She’s playing Katharine Gun, a translator working at Government Communications Headquarters who finds herself frustrated with what she’s seeing on the news. It’s 2003 and as Tony Blair argues for British involvement in an Iraq war, she’s struggling to understand the reasoning, aware of the lack of evidence underpinning his case. When Katharine receives an email asking for help, she’s concerned. Aware that a UN resolution was looking unlikely, the NSA was asking GCHQ employees to spy on diplomats, hoping to blackmail them into agreeing that invasion was necessary. Unsettled and angered by the request, Katharine found herself tasked with a life-changing dilemma, forced to weigh up the importance of herself versus her country.
The story of Katharine Gun is one that’s often been overlooked and undervalued since the Iraq war and there’s immense satisfaction in seeing her bravery and selflessness heralded on the big screen. Hood, a South African director who’s experienced a patchy career in Hollywood after breaking out with the Oscar-winning Tsotsi, sticks to a similar formula used in his last film Eye in the Sky, which saw a troupe of talented actors discuss the morality of war as it pertained to a specific situation. While that film gripped, this one often plods, the story feeling a bit stretched over the expansive two-hour running time.
After the email is leaked, Hood follows its arrival at the Observer and while it’s fascinating to witness the internal debate that took place over both its veracity and how it might affect the paper’s pro-invasion stance at the time, the newsroom scenes border on ham. While Matt Smith and Matthew Goode are solid, too many other performances feel broad and overcooked, especially Conleth Hill as editor Roger Alton and Rhys Ifans as Ed Vulliamy, who almost manages to outdo his turn in Snowden for sheer awfulness. These scenes are intermixed with Katharine’s domestic life and the strain the decision took on her marriage and while they do help build to a particularly tense sequence involving a potential deportation, the majority of them feel flat and repetitive and as her husband, Adam Bakri is utterly wooden.
But the film relies on its lead star and Knightley is more than equipped for the task of carrying it on her shoulders. For too long, she was trapped in a cycle of mostly thankless supporting roles, from London Boulevard to Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to Everest to Collateral Beauty, but after her commanding, nuanced lead performance in Colette, it feels like she’s having something of a comeback. She’s fantastic here, vulnerable and strong-willed, her face conveying the inner anguish of someone losing faith in her government while fearful for what might come next. During one particular interrogation, she’s particularly electric but in this scene, as with many others, she’s fighting against mediocrity both in the performers she’s paired with and Hood’s flat direction. It’s a testament to her skills as an actor that she makes it work quite so well.
Official Secrets is a well-intentioned retelling of a daunting act of courage and as a vehicle for informing more people of who Katharine Gun is, it’s effective, carefully laying out the incremental stakes as well as her noble intentions. Credit for this however lies almost solely with Knightley.