Official Secrets

Rating :   ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ + ½

Categorisation: Whistleblowing/Spy Drama

Availability: Netflix 

Plot: Based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, Official Secrets tells the true story of whistleblower Katherine Gun, a translator in the British security services. It is 2003, in the run-up to the Iraq War, and Katherine spends her time listening into conversations and reporting anything that may be suspicious to her seniors. One day, along with her fellow translators, she is forwarded a memo from a high-level US official seeking help from the British services to pressurise vulnerable UN Security Council countries so they will fall in line and vote in favour of the war against Iraq. A strong ally of the US, and in ‘matter of fact’ style, the Brits respond positively. The translators are clearly shocked by the scandalous effort by the US to legitimise the war, but in turn take an ‘ours-is-not-to-reason-why’ position. Katherine is nevertheless incensed by the conspiracy and after some angry soul-searching, she leaks the memo. The film then follows the extraordinary story of the personal and professional costs of being a whistleblower when the stakes are high and the politics are bullying.

Cast: Official Secrets has a strong cast of well-known actors with mixed results. Matt Smith does a good job playing the likeable Martin Bright, the Observer reporter who broke the story. Rhys Ifans plays a somewhat excessive Ed Vullismy, Bright’s journalistic colleague. Ralph Fiennes plays a rational Ben Emerson, Katherine’s lawyer. While numerous reviews celebrate Keira Knightley in the lead role, I don’t consider her the best choice to play Katherine Gun. In real life, by most accounts, Gun is a brave and forthright woman. Knightley plays her as a simpering-vulnerable character in the early part of the film, which makes her later shift to confident-assertive rather less believable. There is no doubt that the very act of whistleblowing is stomach-churning – and the real Katherine Gun reported being literally sick to the stomach in the immediate aftermath of the document leak. But in real life she doesn’t come across as simpering. So an actor better able to bring out her strong yet vulnerable character would have been a better choice in the lead role. 

Filming and Setting: Imbuing the film with a documentary quality, director Gavin Hood has taken a non-sensationalist approach. These days we have come to expect full-on action in spy dramas, so this may come across as understated. There are nevertheless subtly tense scenes that carry the drama along, for example, the intimidating interviews in which Katherine is interrogated by the security services and the police. The vindictive response to Katherine’s Muslim husband, who was applying for permanent residency in Britain, also illustrates the abuses of bureaucratic power, and the interspersed footage of political speeches at the time of the incident – Tony Blair and George Bush – are chilling, particularly now the outcome of the illegal war is known. 

Personal Comments: Official Secrets is an important exploration of conscience and moral dilemma – is whistleblowing a betrayal of country or an heroic statement of truth? Given this, I would have liked to see more of Katherine’s life prior to the incident. This would have provided more depth to the drama, and would have helped us to interpret her actions for ourselves, rather than having it laid out explicitly before us. It is nevertheless an important film that lays bare some of the events leading up to the Iraq War, the political deceits that made it all possible.

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