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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Official Secrets

Starring Keira Knightley as a government employee-turned-whistleblower, this ripped-from-the-headlines thriller couldn't be more relevant.
By Sarah Ward
November 21, 2019
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Official Secrets

Starring Keira Knightley as a government employee-turned-whistleblower, this ripped-from-the-headlines thriller couldn't be more relevant.
By Sarah Ward
November 21, 2019
  shares

When Keira Knightley came to fame kicking a soccer ball in Bend It Like Beckham, her steely determination played a considerable part. The English actor does purposeful and plucky with aplomb — earning Oscar nominations in Pride & Prejudice and The Imitation Game — and they're traits that keep serving her well nearly two decades after her big break. In fact, they're perfect for her latest role. Stepping into Katharine Gun's shoes in Official Secrets, Knightley is the epitome of dedicated and purposeful, as a British security services agent-turned-whistleblower needs to be. That focus keeps shining, too, as her version of Gun weathers the personal, professional and legal repercussions for her actions in trying to thwart the 2003 invasion of Iraq, including breaching the United Kingdom's Official Secrets Act.

Yes, there's no doubting where Official Secrets found its title. Even if you weren't across this fairly recent incident, there's no guessing where the film is headed, either. But, working in the same tense mode as he did with 2015's Eye in the Sky, director/co-writer Gavin Hood still treats Gun's rousing true tale like a thriller with good reason — the ins and outs are stirring and gripping. His clear-eyed procedural also proves riveting because it remains immensely relevant, as do the reasons behind Gun's leak of classified documents to start with. While it was once rightfully considered scandalous, politicians, governments and leaders routinely lying to the public has become a regular part of life today; but daring to speak truth to power — and to force those in power to speak the truth — is still rare.

It's an ordinary day for Gun when, during her usual translation and analysis duties for British intelligence, she receives an extraordinary email. Sent from a National Security Agency chief, the communication requests help gathering information about United Nations diplomats, in the hope of convincing the seven non-permanent members of the UN Security Council to vote for military action. Her superiors say that nothing is amiss, but using blackmail to send the world to war doesn't sit well with Gun. Once she sends the document to a friend, who then passes it on to a journalist, it doesn't sit well with Observer reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith) either. After his front-page story hits newsstands, global outrage naturally follows. So does a spiteful investigation by Britain's powers-that-be, who'd rather attack Gun than admit any wrongdoing.

As pieced together with workmanlike precision by Hood, who clearly understands the significance of the story, Gun's plight has many moving parts. Her Turkish husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) is seeking asylum in England, something that's unsurprisingly used against her. After she enlists a veteran human rights lawyer (Ralph Fiennes), she's told that she's not allowed to discuss her work with anyone, including legal counsel, or she'll face further charges. When Bright convinces his pro-war Observer editors to run with the story, an innocent internal error gets conspiracy theorists on the attack as well. Gun is an average Brit calling out wrongdoing in her workplace — wrongdoing with worldwide consequences — and she faces her government's wrath for doing so, but she's steadfast in standing by her actions.

Gun is tenacious, courageous and committed — and yet, crucially, she's just a regular person. That's another reason that Official Secrets resonates so strongly. The film's subject is employed by British security services to gather intelligence, so on paper she's a spy, but she's really just someone sitting behind a computer, doing her job, and daring to challenge the status quo when it conflicts with her sense of right and wrong. Indeed, for all of Knightley's skill at playing insistent, dogged and earnest, she also captures this truth, as does Hood's polished yet never slick direction (a Bourne or Bond-style flick, this isn't). Official Secrets lurks in nondescript offices and watches everyday folks go about their work, while managing a delicate balancing act in the process, ensuring that Gun is a flesh-and-blood figure rather than a simplified martyr.

This is also a movie with a clear outcome in mind and an overt emotional path, although that comes both with the territory and with telling this tale today. Many of the film's supporting players are tasked with underscoring the story's importance — Smith, Fiennes, Matthew Goodes and Rhys Ifans as other journalists, and Jeremy Northam as the public prosecutor eager to put Gun in her place — however Knightley utters the line that couldn't sum up Official Secrets better. Her character is yelling at the TV while watching the news and, yes, it feels relatable as it sounds. "Just because you're the Prime Minister, it doesn't mean you get to make up your own facts," she notes as Tony Blair talks about Iraq. Try not to injure yourself nodding forcefully in agreement.

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