Whistle-blowing drama Official Secrets: more like a transcript than a thriller

It would be a stretch to imagine a more pedestrian retelling of the 2003 Iraq War leak.

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Official Secrets is based on events that took place in Britain in 2003, though it could be set on the planet Zog in the year 4097, so different does this country look a mere 16 years later. The film shows rudimentary websites and fully functioning phone-boxes but no social media. (Is that why the characters, for all that they are pressured and hounded, seem to have that bit more breathing space?) There are flip-phones but no smartphones, so everyone looks each other straight in the eye. Archive footage shows politicians and television presenters being perfectly cordial with one another, though let’s not get carried away: a British prime minister is still peddling brazen untruths to the world. This is Tony Blair, who is seeking a second UN resolution to ratify military action against Iraq.

“Bloody liar!” shouts Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) as she watches Blair’s latest slippery appeal. Her husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), tries to calm her down: “Yelling at the television doesn’t make any difference. They can’t hear you.” Funny he should say that. As Katharine will discover, “they” can always hear you. (Her first line, whispered during an evening of passion with her husband, is: “The neighbours will hear.”) And, as it turns out, she can make a difference. In her job as a translator at GCHQ, she receives a classified email from American intelligence asking British counterparts to spy on UN Security Council members from five countries to blackmail them into supporting war. There she was, sitting at the kitchen table in her tasteful quality knitwear, and suddenly she finds she’s a whistle-blower.

Once she passes the email to a friend in the know, it ends up in the hands of the reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith) at the Observer, where there are doubts about its authenticity (“Hitler Diaries!”) and consternation that it will undermine the paper’s pro-war stance. “Where’s my piece comparing Saddam to Milosevic?” demands the editor Roger Alton (Conleth Hill), veins and shirt buttons bursting, while political editor Kamal Ahmed (Ray Panthaki) points out: “We support the war. We have taken a position on this.” That would be the missionary position, with America on top.

But the paper slaps the story on its front page, and the first Katharine knows about this is when she sees that week’s edition in her local petrol station. All at once her life starts to fall apart. An interrogator is installed at GCHQ to weed out the mole, though he’s not half as scary as Katharine’s vampiric superior. Is that a crimson blouse she’s wearing or just the blood from all the necks she’s bitten? As played by the superb Monica Dolan, she has a nice line in homely intimidation, but there are also surprising notes of sadness and dismay in the little gasp of “Oh, Katharine!” which she lets slip when her employee finally comes clean.

Faced with prosecution for breaching the Official Secrets Act, Katharine calls on the services of Liberty – here’s Indira Varma as its director Shami Chakrabarti, and Ralph Fiennes reprising his Cockney accent from In Bruges (“‘Allo”) as barrister Ben Emmerson. The case is a sticky one unless he can prove Katharine leaked the email to prevent an illegal conflict. “So now you’re going to put the war on trial?” asks Chakrabarti, sounding like a woman who knows she is in a fact-based political thriller and can even hear the generic espionage music on the soundtrack.

Based on Marcia and Thomas Mitchell’s 2008 book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion, the film moves along fluidly enough, even if the director Gavin Hood prioritises narrative over authentic human bustle or behaviour. Groups of actors pose a problem to him, and there are moments when he appears to be directing only one performer at a time. Yasar stares at Katharine for far too long as she talks on the phone; journalists stand stock still in an orderly line in front of the TV; a junior detective in an interview room examines the wall in a way that suggests he’s going to ask about the undercoat.

There are, however, some good-value guest stars: Kenneth Cranham is an exasperated judge and Tamsin Greig turns up briefly to drink tea and say “brouhaha.” (The real Martin Bright, who went on to be political editor on this magazine, stops by to call out the line “Brighty!” to Matt Smith.) Funding from Screen Yorkshire guarantees that scenes in newspaper offices and computer terminals are interrupted every so often by rolling dales and drystone walls.

The best political writing uses imagination to elevate fact into drama, but Official Secrets is more like a transcript than a thriller. While it is difficult to think of a higher-calibre cast to perform this material, it would be a stretch also to imagine a more pedestrian retelling. Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets isn’t a poor film so much as an unremarkable one, and if there is any suspense or stylistic innovation to be wrung from this important story then the director is keeping it under his hat. 

Official Secrets (15)
dir: Gavin Hood

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 23 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state