Chris Knight: Keira Knightley does what she can to keep the tension high, helped by Ralph Fiennes as her crusading, anti-war lawyer
In this age of WikiLeaks, fake news, and the British government seeming ready to tear itself apart, there’s something almost genteel in the true story of a conscientious whistleblower trying to stop the Second Iraq War by contacting a newspaper. It’s like watching code breakers at work between tea breaks at Bletchley Park.
And who better to star in the story than Keira Knightley, who played Second World War cryptanalyst Joan Clarke in The Imitation Game? Here she’s Katharine Gun, a minor cog in the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), rattled by a memo that crosses her desk.
It’s early 2003 and the U.S. is looking to shore up support for a planned invasion of Iraq. Not content with manufacturing the cause – weapons of mass destruction that would never be found – America wanted Britain’s help in leaning on certain UN Security Council members to legitimize the attack.
Gun leaked the memo, and we spend a good part of the movie watching Guardian journalists Martin Bright (Matt Smith) and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) chasing down sources to verify it, only to have much of their work undone by a spellcheck error. (As a former and longtime copy editor, I almost cried during that scene.)
Gun was ultimately unsuccessful in stopping the conflict – otherwise we wouldn’t have a conflict to talk about – and this necessarily saps some of the strength from the film. But it loses none of its moral outrage, channeled through Knightley in a screenplay based on the 2008 non-fiction book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion.
So no spoilers here. The screenplay was co-written by director Gavin Hood, a British director who alternates between big-budget entertainments (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Ender’s Game) and socially conscious dramas (Tsotsi, Rendition, Eye in the Sky). Official Secrets falls neatly into the second category, with a subplot about Gun’s immigrant husband (Adam Bakri) facing possible deportation, although the film never resolves the question of whether this may have been a marriage of convenience to help him stay in Britain.
Knightley does what she can to keep the tension high, helped by Ralph Fiennes as her crusading, anti-war lawyer. But the story ultimately falls a bit flat, which itself is a little odd. The “smoking Gun” affair took place barely 15 years ago, and already feels historical, even a little dusty.