by Christine Westwood

Between the introduction by Sundance programmer Kim Yutani who described the theme of Official Secrets as “an individual challenging the system to do what they believe is right” and the audience standing ovation at the end, Gavin Hood’s earnest depiction of a British Intelligence whistleblower is worthy fare.

Hood (Eye in the Sky, Tsotsi) said at the Q&A, “I fought for this project. I met all of the real players who were still alive, and they were all happy with the product. Some scenes are modified to fit dramatic and time constraints but that’s all.”

The film opens with Keira Knightley as whistle blower Katharine Gun ascending the stairs of a courthouse to face judge and jury and be formally charged under the Official Secrets Act.

“It was a decision to show that Katherine is charged right at the beginning of the film, though we don’t know what she pleads,” Hood explains. “Test audiences’ feedback told us it was important because it clarified what the outcome of her actions was, and we then watch events leading to that.”

Knightley is the Brit go-to for serious female characters under pressure. Historic footage shows the real Katharine who was just 28 at the time of the events in 2003, as rather warmer and more contained, in contrast with Knightley’s hollow-cheeked and edgy portrayal, but then she was a woman under duress for most of the story.

Gun’s job at the GCHQ in Cheltenham was a modest role of translating Chinese intercepts. One day an email went out to her and her colleagues asking for their help to create an ‘intelligence surge’ designed to persuade the UN Security Council to send troops into Iraq. It was based on a secret plan by the US and UK governments to swing the vote for invasion.

Gun was shocked and scared but felt it was her duty to expose the plan and send the incriminating memo to The Observer newspaper. With Katharine in the eye of a storm, the rest is a frightening journey of her decision to hold her position in the face of threats, including suspicion and action against her (Turkish) husband.

Taking a look behind the scenes at the real workings of the secret service is always fascinating, not least for how banal and cliched many of those scenes can be, including anonymous meetings in grey and windswept outdoor locations (it is, after all, England). Other scenes and story twists seem stronger than fiction, especially where a junior employee makes a huge blunder with spell check that leads to discrediting The Observer’s breaking story.

Gavin Hood. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Dave J Hogan

Hood, who was clearly impassioned to make the project from the notion of justice and accountability, made a particularly angry swipe at how the press at the time failed to investigate properly before going on the attack.

“The general smugness and laziness of the press, I mean – pick up the phone and check facts for god’s sake! Journalists are supposed to look for the truth, not outsmart each other.”

The film is strengthened by Hood including key scenes in the newspaper office, making a counterbalance to Katharine’s more fragmented, partly internal journey and supplying the audience with more context.

Matt Smith, always compelling to watch, is believable as Martin Bright, the journalist trying to get to the truth, as is Rhys Ifans’ angry, battle-weary reporter pulling on his American contacts to break through the wall of silence.

“We got lucky with casting,” says Hood. “I sent a script out and got Keira right away then Matt. The character of Ben, the defending lawyer is so formidable in real life, so they needed someone very powerful to carry that and we were able to get Ralph Fiennes.”

Avuncular with his client and cold blooded with his opponents, Fiennes’ QC Ben Emmerson is a man you want on your side and his thread bolsters the telling of the story with another strong voice.

There were a couple of layers of writers on this meticulously constructed story, the first being Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, co-authors of The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion. For the script, Hood co-wrote with Sara and Gregory Bernstein (The Conspirator).

“We deliberately made use of humour,” Hood says. “It was important, partly because the story itself is absurd,” he adds, referring to the attempts to incriminate Gun and deflect from what the governments were up to.

“Some think she was naïve. The issue is – when do you speak up? We all work for someone and there are times we may see something that’s off, but we have a fear of losing our jobs. In that case, we have to ask, ‘do we have procedures where I can find a channel to question something? Can I feel safe in saying when something isn’t right?’”

To applause he added he was pleased to say, “GCHQ now has a process and channel to report to.”

Official Secrets is in cinemas November 21, 2019


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