The story of Katherine Gun is not a well-known one. Despite its compelling connection with Britain’s entry into the Iraq war and the subsequent fallout, the tale of a GCHQ employee who leaked a government memo pointing to corruption at the highest level has not bled into the public discourse even in the many years since.
Official Secrets looks to change that and is one of a few films out in 2019 that seeks to bring to light massive failings from both the US and UK governments during this period, echoing many of the same uncomfortable beats – though separated by the Atlantic – as upcoming conspiracy drama The Report.
But Official Secrets is a much warmer film in many ways, focusing on Gun’s (Keira Knightley) home life, relationship with husband Yasar (Adam Bakri), and her reasons for doing what she did in the first place. The narrative would have actually benefitted from spending more time on that latter point, as we spend so little time with Katherine before she finds the memo that we’re unclear on her reasons outside of ‘because it’s the right thing to do’.
We first meet Gun at her home, angrily shouting at the television as Tony Blair is interviewed circa 2003. While such scenes might now be commonplace in homes across the country in the age of Brexit, her passionate response here is a result of her job translating intelligence for the British government. As Yasar reminds her, it began as just a job to help pay the bills, but it soon becomes a lot more.
And so, when Katherine and her colleagues receive an email that heavily implies the nefarious ‘arm-twisting’ of certain UN members in order to secure a vote in favour of the war in Iraq, the choice between ignoring and exposing it arises. Gun, of course, does the latter, offering up a crude print-out to an anti-war friend who eventually passes it on to journalists at The Observer.
The film is unexpectedly at its best when it’s a newsroom drama, with Matt Smith’s Martin Bright – the writer who broke the story – bringing infectious energy and Rhys Ifans the film’s only real comedic beats with his spirited performance as journalist Ed Vulliamy.
One of the key issues of bringing this particular kind of story to film is that, after the first inciting incident, Gun herself has very little agency and control over her situation. The memo transfers to the hands of Bright, who then publishes it before the case is taken on by lawyers. At this point in the story, while Gun’s experience is still very much centred, Official Secrets becomes a film about the legality of the war itself, much like Gun’s case did.
Ralph Fiennes pops up late in proceedings as Gun’s lawyer to give the film a welcome shot in the arm, and from here until the very last scene he takes the reins on relaying the thematic points of the film. Does what Gun did make her a traitor to her government, or a hero to her country? Does the alleged illegality of the war itself cancel out the violation of the Official Secrets Act?
Director and co-writer Gavin Hood certainly has his opinions, and this is not a film that wants the audience to make up its own mind. The outcome of the case somewhat speaks for itself, and viewers in 2019 will almost certainly have their own thoughts on the Iraq War now that certain facts have come to light.
But now also seems like the right time for stories like this to be told. When it increasingly feels like governments are playing by new rules, politicians more brazen in their untruths but less forthcoming when it comes to irrefutable facts, we must learn about figures like Gun in order to foster new heroes and take down our current, perhaps unseen, villains.
In the end, Official Secrets is a solid and efficient retelling of the events surrounding Gun and her actions, as well as the actions of politicians in the face of a historically unpopular war. Knightley is utterly captivating as a woman who does the moral thing at risk of losing everything, but sadly the film itself never quite matches her.
Official Secrets is in UK cinemas on 18 October.