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Film Review: Official Secrets

Director:    Gavin Hood

Cast:  Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing, Hattie Morahan, Conleth Hill, Katherine Kelly, Kenneth Cranham, Hanako Footman, Adam Bakri

Rating:     MA

Running Time:     112

Australian Distributor:     Universal Pictures Australia


Directed by Gavin Hood, Official Secrets is based on a true story of Katharine Gun, an intelligence translator who received, and then leaked, a memo exposing an illegal US operation in trying to blackmail small countries into supporting a United Nations resolution for an attack on Iraq. Played by Keira Knightley, Katharine deals with the ramifications of her actions.

Official Secrets gives audiences a different side to the story, notably one that was lurking behind the UK Government. Littered throughout the film are TV news snippets involving George Bush and Tony Blair emphasising the ‘need’ to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. The idea that this decision was swayed by powerful figures only makes the narrative more intriguing.

Hood’s direction reiterates the importance of Katharine’s actions. She immediately knows there is a morally conflicted issue with the memo, and there’s an unsettling indifference among her bosses and colleagues, which heightens the risk of making the memo public.

Katharine takes the story to an ex-employee who filters it to the press via The Observer’s Martin Bright (Matt Smith) and, later, human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), but when her identity comes to light, it’s Katharine’s Muslim husband who faces deportation as a direct consequence of her actions.

Delivering a mature performance, Knightley portrays Katharine Gun as someone out of her depth. Her thinking that the leak would be kept a secret shows an unexpected level of naivety, so seeing her fraught reaction to being punished comes across as a surprise. But being targeted in all directions increases her emotional investment into her dilemma, which exacerbates her personal turmoil as she tries to defend her actions.

However, Official Secrets has an important true story to tell, and Knightley is the ideal actress to take this film to great heights and make it her own.  The film boasts a terrific British cast supporting Knightley’s convincing and affecting portrayal.

Among them are Ralph Fiennes as Katharine’s human-rights attorney, Matthew Goode and Matt Smith as journalists for The Observer, and Rhys Ifans as another British journalist. Though they each play a small role, I think they all provide a memorable turn as the people Katharine came in contact with. 

Of course, Official Secrets has a distinct viewpoint, and it’s an easy one to take with the benefit of hindsight and knowing that the U.S. found none of then-President George W. Bush’s fabled weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But it’s obvious who the heroes of the story are, and it’s not the Americans. Still, there’s enough truth in the story that even American audiences aren’t going to be too offended by the angle.

Hood’s direction keeps even the most routine of scenes brimming with tension. For a movie where no one is getting shot at, Official Secrets is a highly effective little spy thriller.


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