Official Secrets

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/10/19 13:55:00

"Capable and smart as you'd expect."
3 stars (Average)

Gavin Hood hasn't dedicated his entire directorial career to making films about the crimes and compromises behind the twenty-first century's Middle Eastern wars, but at three and counting, he's probably done more dramatic features on the subject than all but a few. If they ever become history people look back on rather than things that are still going on, those films will at the very least be an interesting set of commentary on the times as a group, even if some (like "Official Secrets") are better as commentary than thrilling narrative.

The Official Secrets Act is the United Kingdom's primary law meant to protect national security, and in February 2004, Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) went on trial for the events of nearly a year earlier, when as a translator of signals intelligence, she was forwarded a memo asking that any information that could be used to leverage United Nations delegates into supporting action in Iraq on rather flimsy pretexts. She gave a copy to a friend in the anti-war movement, via whom it eventually made its way to reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith) of the Observer, a paper that had until that point been editorializing in favor of the war. Bright, Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), and Washington correspondent Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) must be careful running the information down - it's hard to prove the sender even exists - and when the story breaks and Katharine is discovered, her Kurdish husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) becomes a target and lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) is hamstrung in what he can do to defend her.

There are times when Official Secrets seems almost too reserved and British for its own good, avoiding direct confrontation, short-circuiting a suspenseful stretch by having Katharine spontaneously confess, and making a lot of effort to repeat the details of what seems a convoluted legal strategy. But that's sort of the point; the film is about how institutions can smother people attempting to do right and how those in power arrange those institutions to make it more difficult. One of the most telling lines is almost tossed off, referencing how the law Katharine Gun has run afoul of was specifically amended when someone had successfully opposed corruption before. It's about crimes whose effects are devastating but diffuse, almost impossible to witness and report by design.

It's a quiet message to get across, and sometimes Hood seems a little unsure how to crank the tension up and show Gun being drained at the same time. This (presumably in tandem with the actual events) makes for an odd combination of muted and driven scenes, seeming indecision over whether to be professional, driven, or exhausted. While there are some nice moments (a wordless shot that shows how the court is built to intimidate), the attempts to inject suspenseful episodes is a little pro forma, and there are stretches where characters are introduced like participants in a documentary, name-checked on both the soundtrack and screen, around long enough to give the viewer some information, and then gone.

The folks playing those people are a nice group, as are the main cast members, although it's one of those cases where the performances are good but the actors never quite disappear into their roles or make those characters individual. Keira Knightley, for instance, shows Katharine's growing tension and despair as she waits for a story to drop very well, and finds the steely side as well, but she nevertheless seems thinly sketched, with Knightley given just enough to do to establish what she'll do but not much more. Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, and Ralph Fiennes are among the other cast members who always seem recognizably themselves rather than animating someone else, even if they're always such talented professionals that they're giving the scene what it needs.

The funny thing is, all of this comes together in one of my favorite scenes, in which Ralph Fiennes very politely tells a friend to stick his request for civility where the sun doesn't shine. It's a film about how political abstractions run up against actual human consequences, and while that itself can be abstract, it can still hit home when it does connect on a human level.

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