Official Secrets (2019)
Director: Gavin Hood | 112 minutes | biography, drama Actors: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Katherine Kelly Ralph Fiennes, Indira Varma, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, MyAnna Buring, Kenneth Cranham, Jack Farthing, Tamsin Greig, Hattie Morahan, Jeremy Northam, Conleth Hill, Hanako Footman, Shaun Dooley, Monica Dolan, Chris Larkin
It is almost a genre in itself: films about whistleblowers, people who risk their own safety to expose abuses. The most famous whistleblower of all time, Mark Felt or Deep Throat – the man who publicized the Watergate scandal – was of course immortalized in “All the President’s Men” (1976). Edward Snowden, who released information about the eavesdropping practices of the NSA in 2013, inspired Oliver Stone to make the film “Snowden” (2016). There have also been several documentaries about him. Daniel Ellsberg, who passed on the Pentagon Papers to the press in the early 1970s, was portrayed in “The Pentagon Papers” (2003) and more recently “The Post” (2017). A documentary has been released about Chelsea Manning, who leaked information about the US military’s misbehavior in Iraq, and is awaiting the first feature film about her. Katherine Gun fits perfectly in this list of whistleblowers, but her name is a lot less known to the general public. The British Gun worked as a translator at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in London and encountered a top secret email in 2003 that she couldn’t keep to herself. Her story has now been filmed in “Official Secrets” (2019), by South African director Gavin Hood, the man behind the impressive Oscar-winning “Tsotsi” (2005).
In this film Keira Knightley takes on the role of Katherine Gun. It is 2003 and the British media is paying a lot of attention to the impending American attack on Iraq. Tony Blair, at the time the prime minister of the United Kingdom, argues for British interference in the attack. Something where Katherine’s hair straightens up. Indeed, there is no evidence at all for the weapons of mass destruction being discussed; she finds it lies that are meant to influence public opinion. Her husband, the Turkish-Kurdish Yasar (Adam Bakri), thinks she shouldn’t be upset about it, but when Katherine receives a secret e-mail at work in which the NSA, the American security service, calls her and her colleagues on diplomats from certain Eavesdropping on UN member states, she smells trouble. The intercepted information must be used to blackmail the diplomats, so that they nevertheless agree to the attack on Iraq. Katherine is stuck with the e-mail in her stomach and after long deliberation she decides to play it through a former colleague. Journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith) from The Observer receives a copy of the e-mail and decides to publish. That gets the ball rolling and the security service soon discovers that the information must have been leaked from GCHQ. Katherine decides to give herself up, after which her fate – and that of the man dear to her – lies in the hands of the tribunal.
On paper, Katherine Guns reads the story as an exciting page gymnast; unfortunately this movie version of Gavin Hood is not as exciting as we had hoped. There are certainly exciting moments, but they can be counted on one hand. Because the story is true and so we can google how things have ended, that does not mean that the film does not have to be boring. But that is “Official Secrets” at times unfortunately. Knightley makes the best of it with an excellent performance, in which we clearly feel how she weighs and weighs between her own interests and safety and that of her country. This is a woman for whom honesty is paramount and who expects that from her environment. In her struggle, she gets human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) by her side. That could have resulted in spectacular acting, but because the trial goes out like a night candle, that promise is not being delivered. It’s a shame that the qualities of Fiennes remain unused! Even in the news editorial scenes, not all of the actors’ talents – including Smith including Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans and Conleth Hill – are fully utilized and the events and characters remain on the flat side. Actually, after Katherine has decided to play the mail, little happens for a long time that gets us excited, while that seems to be the intention of the makers. Only when eviction threatens for her Kurdish husband, does the fire flare up again. But that unfortunately appears to be short-lived.
“Official Secrets” – the title is just as uninspired as the story – promises a lot but unfortunately cannot deliver it all. It is not Keira Knightley; she plays the brave whistleblower perfectly and puts her life on the line to make the dirty game that the authorities play public. A woman who earns more credit than she gets and whose name we will certainly remember from now on. Her story could have been – and should have – become much more exciting and the talents of Knightley’s colleagues Fiennes, Smith and all those others should have been better utilized. What remains is a very solidly made film that has absolutely the right intentions, but which fails to excite and inspire us and lingers in a somewhat boring summary of the facts.