Official Secrets is based on a true story; the fact that it’s one of the most shameful events in our recent history makes it worth seeing, even if the film itself doesn’t quite match up to Keira Knightley’s sterling performance in the central role.
She plays Katharine Gun, a translator at GCHQ in Cheltenham, a British intelligence agency. She’s paid to snoop on emails and recorded phone calls, in order to seek out those individuals who might represent a danger to the people of Great Britain – but what she stumbles upon emanates from a close ally and fills her with dismay.
It’s 2003 and the western world is moving ever closer to armed conflict with Iraq. Katharine spots an email from somebody called Frank Koza of the American-based National Security Agency, who is masterminding a (clearly illegal) plan to bug the offices of the United Nations in order to put pressure on politicians, ‘encouraging’ them to vote for an invasion of Iraq. Appalled by the thought of so many people dying in the ensuing conflict, Katharine secretly makes a copy of the email and passes it on to an anti-war activist she knows. The email eventually finds its way into the hands of Observer journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), who publishes the piece. But when MI6 come looking for the whistleblower, it’s soon apparent that Katherine has put herself – and her Muslim husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri) – in terrible jeopardy.
The central message of Gavin Hood’s film is all too evident. We cannot trust the institutions that purport to have our best intentions at heart; too many of them are ready to cover up their dodgy deals by any means possible and throw to the wolves all who oppose them.
As I said, Knightley gives a remarkable performance here, but the bitty screenplay means that a whole procession of top-notch character actors are reduced to what amount to little more than cameo appearances. It says something when Ralph Fiennes, playing Kathrine’s defence lawyer, Ben Emerson, has little to do other than stand on a beach gazing mournfully at his fishing rod; throw in fleeting appearances from the likes of Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode and Tamsin Greig to name but three, and it’s clear that something is amiss.
Furthermore, the rather dry nature of the ensuing events occasionally prompts the writers to sex things up a little: it seems unlikely, for instance, that Yasar would have come quite so close to deportation as is depicted here – but nevertheless, this is an important story, one that should serve as a warning to anyone who believes in the sanctity of democracy. As the film points out, thousands of innocent people died because of the conflict in Iraq – a war that is now widely seen as an illegal violation of human rights. Katharine Gun was trying, in her own way, to prevent it from happening.
Tony Blair is not going to like what’s depicted here – and his is not the only political name that’s given a thorough kicking. Furthermore, recent developments in Syria make this all too prescient.