Writers: Gregory Bernstein, Sarah Bernstein and Gavin Hood
Director: Gavin Hood
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Imagine the frustration for reporter Martin Bright of The Observer back in 2003 when his story from a leaked memo demonstrating that American and Britain were planning to coerce members of the UN Security Council to agree to war in Iraq, and a subeditor’s correction of US to UK English meant the whole thing was dismissed as a fake and war happened anyway. Gavin Hood’s latest film, which premiered at the London Film Festival, looks for the woman behind the headline, the GCHQ staffer Katherine Gun who risked it all to expose corruption to the world.
A forwarded email from a National Security Agency memo reaches the inbox of Katherine Gun who, after much fretting, hands it to an anti-war friend and it makes its way into the hands of a national newspaper. Unsure whether to print, the team at The Observer must ratify their discovery but doing so brings significant consequences for Katherine who weighed down by guilt confesses all to her GCHQ bosses and is charged under the Official Secrets Act.
The question of when events start to feel like history is an interesting one and while historians are reticent about analysing the very recent past, filmmakers love nothing more than revealing the unsung heroes who stand-up to governments and fight for the rights of the people. Gavin Hood’s perspective on Tony Blair’s decision to go to war is unyielding, it was an illegal war that costs hundreds of thousands of lives which one conscientious woman tried to prevent and Official Secrets is fierce in its emphasis on this moment as a turning point in modern political and intelligence history.
Openly comparable to The Report which also showed at the Festival, the real-life Katherine Gun received an enthused ovation just as Daniel Jones did – which perhaps says more about our current mistrust of deceptive governments and admiration for the whistle-blowers who hold them to account than either of these films. Official Secrets is by far the more emotional film however and once the deed is done its focus is on the domestic perspective as Gun is forced to wait almost a year to know what will happen to her.
While always interesting, the result is a little meandering at times, with emphasis on Gun’s continued torment as she’s questioned by police, faces further legal action for consulting lawyers and is threatened with the removal of her Kurdish-Turkish husband. It means that the newsroom staff and legal team who defended Gun as well as the political machinations working against her in GCHQ and beyond are only lightly explored.
It seems a shame to hardly use such an exceptional supporting cast including Ralph Fiennes as lawyer Ben Emerson, Matt Smith as Martin Bright plus Rhys Ifans and Matthew Goode as fellow reporters, not to mention even smaller roles for Indira Varma, Conleth Hill, Jeremy Northam, Jack Farthing and Monica Dolan who has three films at the Festival. But their presence creates more questions than the film can answer; just how did The Observer react to claims of fakery when a few weeks later war was declared and what were the consequence in terms of trust in their journalist; how did the legal team prepare a defence with so little “official” information, and with a team member committing a major act of espionage how did this affect her friends at GCHQ? It’s Katherine’s film certainly but Hood teases us with angles he never fully explores.
Keira Knightley leads the cast as Katherine and while she has a tendency to over-express – how could everyone in GCHQ not have realised she was guilty given her obviously suspicious behaviour – she finds the steel beneath the surface, as well as reflecting the fear of uncertainty that dominated the ensuing months. And while Katherine is shown to struggle with her conscience, she stands by her principles to the surprising end.
Official Secrets is an interesting examination of a small story of personal bravery swallowed by the announcement of war in 2003. Hood’s film ably demonstrates the tricky political circumstances for intelligence agents, journalists and lawyers wanting to bring the truth to light and celebrates the courage of one woman who took the risk for us.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October