Official Secrets is a Timely, Suspenseful Thriller With Stellar Storytelling (Review)

by | Sep 20, 2019


Ever since receiving critical and awards-season accolades for Tsotsi in 2006, writer/director Gavin Hood has carved a niche for himself in making suspenseful political thrillers, and his latest film, Official Secrets, is another solid entry into the genre. Based on the actual events surrounding real-life whistleblower Katharine Gun, her story has been adapted into a gripping, suspenseful film worth your time and attention for its ominous visuals, engaging performances from its cast led by Keira Knightley, and an eye-opening look at the lengths to which everyone involved went on all sides of Katharine’s case to stand up for what’s right.

The true story of Katharine Gun and her personal, legal and internal battles that followed her attempt to stop the Iraq War is told in the latest political thriller from Gavin Hood.

In today’s political landscape, we as people react in a myriad of ways to the horror that populates the daily news cycle. Some are valiant and pick up signs before joining a rally of protestors, while others vent their opinions online. Meanwhile, artists take a stand through their work, and someone who has done that time and time again in his career is South African writer/director Gavin Hood. After his film Tsotsi won the Best International Feature Film Academy Award in 2006 (formerly the Best Foreign Language Film category), Hood went on to direct his first American political thriller Rendition, which saw Reese Witherspoon reach out to a government official in hopes of rescuing her Egyptian husband from detainment. 


Following a couple forays into studio fare with X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game, Hood returned to the political thriller genre in 2015 with Eye In The Sky, and remains in that niche with his new film Official Secrets, a compelling and gripping British thriller that possesses timely themes about taking a stand for what’s right when the powerful are doing so wrong, harkens back to a dark period of time where destruction took place in a corner of the world, and tells the story about the journalists, lawyers, and one whistleblower who put country and justice over a legal roadblock trying to prevent it. 

Based on actual events, Official Secrets follows Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), a translator and researcher for the Government Communications Headquarters in the United Kingdom, who upon receiving an email from Frank Koza, a mysterious NSA agent, is ordered to dig up incriminating information on select members of the United Nations with the intent to blackmail them in hopes of rigging an upcoming vote on aligning the UN with that of the United States in the latter’s military invasion of Iraq. Fearing the death toll that all countries involved would face if such a war were to commence, Katharine leaks the memo to The Observer, a newspaper publication that sides with Prime Minister Tony Blair on letting the Iraq War begin.

The memo ends up in the hands of Martin Bright (Matt Smith), The Observer’s lead investigative journalist, who tries to legitimize the facts surrounding the mysterious memo before corroborating a news story about it with his superior Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode). Meanwhile, the paper’s US correspondent Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans), does everything he can in Washington DC to not only question Frank Koza about his government’s intentions, but also prove his existence. As this is going on, Katharine wrestles with internal doubt and anxiety over what she did; with her worries ranging from acting on rash impulse to the legal consequences of her actions, but her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) is there to help her relax and cope along the way, even while her employer opens an office-wide investigation into who leaked the memo. 

And Keira Knightley portrays Katharine throughout her emotional rollercoaster in a commanding lead performance; employing her range and the right amount of restraint to display Katharine’s steadfastness in her beliefs without ever feeling exaggerated or over-the-top, while the fear in her facial expressions convey her anxieties over herself and her husband’s future through powerful visuals. As the lead, Knightley aids in Hood’s storytelling as a director in portraying Katharine as an on-screen character as she was in that time period: she insists she isn’t trying to overthrow Parliament, but rather just doing her duty as a British citizen.

The script Hood co-wrote with Gregory and Sara Bernstein also does a solid job of depicting the parallels between the demanding nature of working in journalism and those in government communications. In instances where Katharine takes her desk in an early scene, and again when she prints the memo unbeknownst to her co-workers, her superior requests for reports from her with intimidating authority, while Martin and Ed are constantly asked to write articles about complex subject matter in unreasonably few words. 

It’s also worth noting that the rest of the ensemble cast pulls their own weight as well as Knightley; Matt Smith brings a certain dryness to playing Martin Bright, especially when he asks Peter for his MI6 contact when he means his “tennis club friend”, or going to incredible lengths to mask his chicanery in the name of journalistic integrity when a government official asks him if he has the memo, to which he responds, “Well, if it were, I would be in violation of the Official Secrets Act, then, wouldn’t I?” 

The first half of Official Secrets juxtaposes the Observer’s rigorous fact-checking and internal investigations with Katharine’s internal anxieties at an engaging pace, but after a development at the film’s halfway point, the former subplot is replaced by the emergence of Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) as a new ally for Katharine. His character deals her the harsh realities of her predicament, but in sharing her convictions about justice, he works with her in every way he can. Fiennes is a solid addition to the ensemble, but his character’s entry into the story shifts Official Secrets into a legal drama that slows the pace down until the film’s end. It’s also worth noting that the structure, as well as select moments, feel familiar to other thrillers in the genre.

But those occurrences are few and far between, and it’s clear that Gavin Hood is passionate about the material he chose to illustrate in Official Secrets through his visual eye as a director, which crafts an ominous tone throughout the film. The UK in 2003 is painted by the washed out colors of its buildings as well as an abundance of shadows to reflect both the confidential nature of the meetings between its characters, and the ominous future looming over the world in that moment in time. The results of Katharine Gun’s leak notwithstanding, the film about her personal battles after standing up for the truth remains compelling thanks to the strong ensemble cast, effective direction from Gavin Hood, and a suspenseful script about her story, as well as all the secrets everyone involved in it kept to do the right thing. For those reasons, it’s no secret that Official Secrets is an engaging, suspenseful thriller worth seeing this weekend.

Rating: [star rating=”4″]