"...a smart and competent drama"

Knightly Performance Elevates Film

(092019) Official Secrets is the fact based story of how whistle blower, Katharine Gun, a GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) employee leaked a secret memo which revealed info on an illegal spying operation run by the United States under the Bush administration. The USA and British officials were using personal info they uncovered to blackmail United Nations diplomats that were slated to vote on a resolution regarding the invasion of Iraq.

The adept screenplay is based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion” by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell. It was written by Sara Bernstein, Gregory Bernstein and the director, Gavin Hood, and would have made a much better title for the film.

The film stars Keira Knightley who gives a memorable, inspiring performance (perhaps one of the best of the year.) Even though she has been associated with costume dramas, the English actress, Knightley has had an extremely eclectic and distinguished career, and I have long admired her work.

She played Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire in The Duchess (her costar in that film was also Ralph Fiennes who is also in Official Secrets); an oppressed author/wife in the biopic, Collete; Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, the psychoanalytic pioneer, Spielrein in A Dangerous Method; and a spunky young soccer player in Bend It Like Beckham. The less said about her Pirates of the Caribbean series roles the better.

Official Secrets contains one of her most convincing and impressive performances. It is the above average acting overall that props this film up from what could have been in lesser hands the an ordinary, forgettable topical/political film.

The film’s engaging supporting cast including Matt Smith (he was fine here but he was one of my least favorite Doctors on Dr. Who), Matthew Goode (Ozymandias in the film adaptation of D.C.’s Watchmen), Adam Bakri (a relative newcomer to film), Game of Thrones graduate, Indira Varma, and of course Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List and Spider). It is refreshing that the film features the best actors for the roles even if they are not necessarily the biggest stars.

Early in the film, Gunn is shown to be politically engaged, idealistic and passionate, and she is already livid with rage over the illegal War in Iraq. Watching the evening news, she screams at Tony Blair on her television: “Just because you’re Prime Minister doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts!” Her husband, a Turkish refugee, states the obvious when he responds, “he can’t hear you.”

While she was working as a translator for British intelligence, Gun found out the United States and the United Kingdom were essentially blackmailing other countries in the U.N. Security Council into supporting an invasion of Iraq. The information quickly made it into the press. When it came out that Gun was the leaker, she was eventually prosecuted under the country’s Official Secrets Act.

The newspaper reporter from the London Observer (Rhys Ifans), and his editors catch some flack (Matt Smith and Matthew Goode) for running the story when it is challenged by the government. At first all of the newspaper reporters on other papers and TV media are hot to jump on the breaking story, but eventually they all withdraw when it comes out that the spelling on the original memo was different than the spelling on the version printed in the papers (it turns out that a younger colleague foolishly put the memo through spell check.) Later they tell the truth about the story and many people believed them.

The whole incident causes huge, unforeseen problems for everyone involved. Gun is married to a legal immigrant but the government quickly deports him to put pressure on Gun. Also, the lawyer who represents Gun (Ralph Fiennes) has a politician friend on the other side (Jeremy Northam) and this complicates and severely damages their friendship. The film shows us how whistle blowers who alert us to real life government crimes often pay a greater penalty than those that actually hurt large populations people when they are breaking the law. It also shows how the idea of privacy is diminished in our increasingly surveillance dominated society. It also proves once again that institutions are often much more concerned with bad PR or maintaining the social order than actually serving their constituents.

One of the main reasons why this film has far less of an impact than some previous government conspiracy thrillers like say The Conversation and All the President’s Men is that so many of us have become more jaded after revelations about events such as Watergate and the arms for hostages deal. We have been so inundated with news of unethical and illegal acts by the government that almost nothing is shocking anymore. But this is still a smart and competent drama.

Directed by:   Gavin Hood
Written by:   Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, Gavin Hood.
Based on the book "The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion" by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell.
Starring:   Keira Knightly, Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes
Released:   083019
Length:   112 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for language

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to
and plus look for his recent book Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor.

OFFICIAL SECRETS ©  2019 Classified Films
Review © 2019 Alternate Reality, Inc.