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Film Review: Official Secrets

17 October 19 words: Fabrice Gagos

Fabrice Gagos debriefs us on the big-screen adaptation of whistle-blower Katherine Gun...

Director: Gavin Hood

Starring: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Katherine Kelly

Running time: 112 mins

Hero or traitor? That's the stance the media loves to take whenever a whistle-blower, well, blows a whistle. From Daniel Ellsberg to Chelsea Manning, and of course Edward Snowden, they've all been subjected to the same narrative. How do we treat a whistle-blower who, by definition, breaks the law to reveal often highly classified documents that are arguably in the public interest? Depending on how you feel about society in general, these acts of civil disobedience can be seen as high treason that ought to be punished, or an act of patriotism. But let's face it, a US president encouraging foreign countries to investigate a direct opponent, Government eavesdropping on their citizens or a big company harvesting personal data to use for political advertising purposes is pretty shady too. 

And trying to manipulate a vote at the United Nations to go to war is not OK either. That's what Official Secrets is all about. In 2003, Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) a GCHQ employee whose job is to translate phone recordings gathered by British Intelligence, receives a US National Security Agency group mail telling MI5 to help them fix a vote at UN to make the forthcoming war in Iraq legal.  It’s hard to sum up in a handful of words the implication of all of this, but, anyway, let's not go into too much detail. We all know the story and the narrative built by Labour party slayer, Tony Blair, to follow his pal George W. Bush (who was following the steps of his father. Yes, that's a lot of powerful people with daddy issues.) Instead, let's focus on how the film manages to transcribe all this mess into something interesting.

Keira Knightley delivers a truly amazing performance in portraying a really 'normal' Katharine Gun facing an extraordinary situation and taking hard decisions driven by a flawless integrity

Built around a strong casting, Official Secrets portrays the journey of Gun as she faces a moral dilemma, and asks the question: What would you do if you came int to possession of a document proving that your Government is lying to the people? (I mean, more than the usual campaign/public relations lies). Official Secrets successfully tells the story through two main points of view: the whistle-blower through Gun’s dilemmas and the press through Martin Bright (Matt Smith) the journalist who covered the event and his journey to decide and publish the story. We never see the “incriminated Government”, we merely feel its influence through the police investigation and the deportation tentative of Gun’s husband,  efficiently creating a faceless menace to the protagonists.

Keira Knightley delivers a truly amazing performance in portraying a really 'normal' Katharine Gun facing an extraordinary situation and taking hard decisions driven by a flawless integrity. Knightley’s body language perfectly transcribes the fears and internal struggles Gun faces throughout the film, we feel what she feel sometimes at the point of anguish and disgust, Gun is never portrayed as a flawless hero, she’s just a human being doing something way out of her comfort zone simply because she simply can’t accept not doing it. On the other hand, supporting actors are all right were they should be, Matt Smith makes a credible journalist, or at least the type of journalist that we need the most, one who carefully checks his sources while never being pushy or running after a scoop. Smith's easy-going silhouette adds a lot to the character (and, no, I’m not objective: he IS my doctor). Ralph Fiennes, as a human rights lawyer, is impeccable as always, and Rhys Ifans is crazy. Long story short, wherever you look you come across an actor you know being well deployed. 

Official Secrets bears the big responsibility (like every other film relating true, contemporary stories) of reporting on the events to those who have never heard of them, to make the story even more 'out' than when it was making the news. And it does that pretty well, being said by real life Katharine Gun and Martin Bright to be as close to the real story as it can be while an overall very efficient and enjoyable classical thriller which never tries to make the story sensational and does justice to the bravery and integrity of Katharine Gun who definitely deserves more recognition. Yes, I chose my side.

Did you know? This is the second time Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes have starred alongside each other, the first being in The Duchess

Official Secrets is screening at Broadway Cinema until 

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