Official Secrets review – Keira Knightley excels in Iraq war whistleblower drama

Knightley stars as the GCHQ translator who leaked a classified memo to the Observer exposing the US plot to spy on the UN shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq

“Just because you’re the prime minister doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts.” So says Keira Knightley’s whistleblower in Gavin Hood’s “based on true events” drama, an on-the-nose revisiting of the run-up to the Iraq war that draws clear parallels with the “alternative facts” rhetoric of modern politics. While US and UK intelligence agencies conspire to engineer a justification for invasion, GCHQ translator Katharine Gun (whose real-life bravery deserves celebration) follows her conscience and alerts the media to their dirty-tricks campaign, throwing her quiet life into turmoil, putting her work, marriage and freedom at risk.

It’s 2003, and Gun (played with no-nonsense conviction by Knightley) receives a US National Security Agency group email effectively asking her to spy on UN security council members to fix a forthcoming resolution vote for war. She’s outraged, both by the proposal per se and because she believes Blair’s claims of Saddam Hussein’s al-Qaeda links and WMDs aren’t backed up by the evidence. Despite ominous warnings about being “in breach of the Official Secrets Act – some might call that treason”, Gun leaks the email, which finds its way to the offices of the Observer. Here, journos and editors have stand-up showdowns about supporting or opposing the war, while a cast of extras add Greek choric background accompaniment. Declarative statements abound (“If you get it wrong, it’ll sink you; it’ll sink the paper!”) but eventually this “fucking good story” hits the front page, and Gun’s life implodes.

Katharine Gun’s story hits the front page of the Observer, 2 March 2003.
Katharine Gun’s story hits the front page of the Observer, 2 March 2003. Photograph: Observer

After the drone strikes and hi-tech bugs of Hood’s previous nail-biter Eye in the Sky, Official Secrets unfolds in an altogether fustier world of floppy drives and photocopiers, all whirring away to the strains of a soundtrack that works hard to accentuate the air of tension and suspense. It’s a gloomy environment: cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister shrouds the action in a cloak of darkness. Whether we’re in the sinister warrens of GCHQ or the supposedly more comfortable confines of a cafe or a bedroom, Hoffmeister and Hood trap their characters in dim pools of light, shadows crowding the edges of the frame.

By contrast, there’s a pantomine element to some of the performances, most notably Rhys Ifans’s comically chaotic rendering of investigative journalist Ed Vulliamy, mutteringly referred to as a “nutter”, and played accordingly. As Observer editor (and Blairite flag-waver) Roger Alton, the baldified Conleth Hill comes on like a cross between Ed Asner’s Lou Grant and the Fat Controller from Thomas the Tank Engine, all huff and bluster as he mishears “Sunni and Shia” as “Sonny and Cher”, storming around in a sweary, sweaty stew. Meanwhile Matt Smith is heroically handsome and endearingly deflating as reporter Martin Bright, wryly noting that an underground carpark rendezvous with Yvonne (“Fucking”) Ridley is “a little bit Deep Throat, don’t you think?” – an invocation of All the President’s Men that does this film few favours.

Amid the clutter of broad-strokes thumbnails and celebrity cameos (Tamsin Greig as former Foreign Office deputy legal adviser Elizabeth Wilmshurst; Kenneth Cranham as a scowly Judge Hyam), Knightley’s nuanced portrayal of the uncertain, self-doubting Gun comes as something of a relief. She’s particularly good at conveying Gun’s horror when realising that her actions may have endangered her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Kurdish Turk whose legal status proves vulnerable. A distanced close-up on Knightley’s face as Ralph Fiennes’s lawyer Ben Emmerson lays bare the Kafka-esque ramifications of her plight is masterfully understated.

Rhys Ifans as the Observer’s Ed Vulliamy, with Matthew Goode as Peter Beaumont in Official Secrets.
Rhys Ifans as the Observer’s Ed Vulliamy, with Matthew Goode as Peter Beaumont in Official Secrets. Photograph: Ifc Films/Allstar

Adapted by Hood’s co-writers Gregory and Sara Bernstein from Marcia and Thomas Mitchell’s book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War, Official Secrets inevitably takes some dramatic liberties with its truths. In a recent Guardian feature, for example, former foreign desk assistant Nicole Mowbray recalled how this paper’s readers’ editor had phoned her to explain politely “with deft understatement and a total lack of drama” that a typing snafu she’d made had caused “something of an international incident”. On screen, Mowbray is bawled out by Alton in front of the whole office; a minor invention, perhaps, but one that reminds us that most dramatised depictions of “true events” can be found guilty of “sexing up” their sources – even those inspired by stories in which the devil really is in the detail.

Of course, amid the cacophony of barefaced lying that Trump and Johnson have made the norm in this “post-truth” era, Blair’s bland massaging of facts (smugly reassuring David Frost that “war is not inevitable”) can seem almost quaint, however catastrophic the consequences. Whatever its flaws, Official Secrets reminds us just how seriously the state took its pursuit of Gun, who had nothing to gain and everything to lose by raising the alarm, revealing the teeth behind the smarmy smiles.

Watch a trailer for Official Secrets.


Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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