Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes
Director: Gavin Hood
Running Time: 112 mins
Official Secrets is a British film about the true story of Katharine Gun, a young woman working at UK security organisation GCHQ who leaked a secure memo that breached the government’s Official Secrets Act, and opened the floodgates as controversy heightened over the legality of the impending Iraq War.
The legacy of the legality of the Iraq War remains hugely controversial to this day, and the role of both the British and American governments in using illegal methods to further their own interests is something that still creates significant debate. So, a film that deals with both of those topics would be rather intense, and likely quite provocative, right?
Well, that’s not quite the case with Official Secrets, and although it commendably tries to stay as objective as possible in its criticism of the government and the war, it’s hardly the most exhilarating take on what is absolutely an enthralling subject matter.
Starting weakly with a rather simplistic, moral-based look at the limits of a government’s absolute power, the film struggles to really wrestle with its titanic subject matter effectively early on, although it does ultimately come good with an extremely engaging latter half, bringing more political and historical intrigue into the mix.
So, it’s fair to say that Official Secrets isn’t the world’s most consistent political thriller, but while it manages to prove at least factually engrossing throughout, the thing that I felt it really lacked was a sense of real emotion and passion for its cause, as it plays out in rather basic and predictable fashion (particularly in the opening stages) that isn’t really worthy of a subject matter of such significance as this.
While the film has solid moral values that place importance on justice and legality over blind national loyalty, it fails to wrap you as the viewer up into the same whirlwind of anger at the UK and US governments for their illegal actions, lacking the emotional and persuasive power of the likes of Oliver Stone’s excellent whistleblower thriller Snowden.
Couple that less-than-exhilarating opening act with a rather unbalanced pool of characters that ranges from Keira Knightley’s GCHQ whistleblower to Matt Smith’s reporter at The Observer, and many more, and you have a film that, despite the best of intentions, doesn’t get off to the best of starts.
Fortunately, Official Secrets does take a upward turn in its second half, shaking off its core focus on the morality of whistleblower Katharine Gun’s leaks, and turning towards a far interesting and arguably timely look at the terrifying and almost undefeatable power of a government to take on those who wrong them.
As Gun’s case becomes more and more controversial in the press around the world in the build-up to the Iraq War, the film takes a dramatic shift in tone towards a story that looks at how the UK and US government were able to use their immense power and influence to turn the tables on Gun and those working with her, infiltrating the publication of her leaks to further their case for the war, all the while keeping tabs on her as the case becomes more and more significant.
And that’s where Official Secrets really works best. It takes a while to get there, but by the time we see government agents tailing Katharine Gun, and her personal life being ripped apart by pressure from the very top, things start to get really rather scary, bringing about riveting tension that’s backed up by fascinating political context.
That late surge doesn’t last all too long, but it brings the film to a satisfying and thought-provoking close, and makes up for what was a rather weak and unfortunately basic take on what is a deeply enthralling topic, and that’s why I’m giving Official Secrets a 7.4 overall.