Review – Official Secrets (2019)

During one of the most politically-charged times, most of us will ever live through, Official Secrets looks to the past to tell an informative and powerful cautionary tale about questioning authority and national security over personal risk.

Compellingly tense, Gavin Hood’s follow-up to the immensely impressive Eye In The Sky is similarly effective in telling a politically potent piece with a crackling moral complexity. Recounting the real story of whistle-blower Katharine Gun, who in 2003 leaked a top-secret government memo to the press exposing Tony Blair and George Bush’s attempted operation to illegally spy on United Nation’s members and blackmail them into supporting the Iraq war, Official Secrets manages to grip from open to close. Arguably more thrilling the blinder in you go – particularly regarding Gun’s involvement in breaking the story – Official Secrets is a thought-provoking effort that successfully marries fact and character drama with genuine thrills and suspense.

While the three-person screenplay, adapted from The Spy Who Tried To Stop A War, can very occasionally feel like its reciting lines lifted straight from the novel, it is an otherwise cleanly-delivered, intelligently-handled story that simmers so carefully and effectively in its intensity. Fantastically-paced, there’s hardly a moment of flab to the 112-minute feature, never wasting a second of its runtime. It walks the fine line between thoroughly explaining and over-explaining exceedingly well, ensuring audiences understand the lexicon without feeling like they are being spoken down to.

Hood’s direction is cleverly understated and in taking a step back, he gives the film’s characters and story focus over flashy editing or cheap directing tricks. It’s skilfully simplistic, imbuing suspense into every frame through clean and precise camera work, but when it comes to hitting emotional beats, Hood knows how to play them. From the climactic courtroom decision, presented with such urgency, to a couple reuniting, Official Secrets is so solid in its construction on every front, to say nothing of the incredible moment the paper hits a hurdle in its publication – perhaps the most intense scene in any film released this year, and we can thank spell check for it.

An excellent Keira Knightley portrays the complex Gun not with heroism but as a morally-conflicted yet intelligence woman who demonstrates her bravery in holding her government to account, despite placing herself in danger. With such impressive subtlety, Knightley depicts the mostly-internal conflict her character faces with aplomb, conveying raw and authentic emotion through her smallest mannerisms and movements. It is wonderful to see Knightley play someone more contemporary and break from her traditional period typecasting somewhat, delivering one of the strongest performances of her career, topping off a banner year between this and Collette (as well as March’s The Aftermath, to a lesser extent) in the meantime.

Matt Smith provides strong support, spearing the second narrative strand more than capably. Knightley’s Katharine is definitely the heart of the story Smith’s performance helps to deliver the themes of journalistic integrity and the power of the press that texture Gun’s story well. Rounded out by a solid ensemble of performers, Official Secrets is one of the strongest displays of British talent this year.

Official Secrets is intelligent entertainment, powerful, thought-provoking and extremely relevant today. I really wouldn’t want to miss this one.

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