Review: Official Secrets

Directed by Gavin Hood, co-written with Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein, the true story of a British whistle-blower who leaked information to the press about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to push the UN Security Council into sanctioning the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Adam Bakri, India Varma, John Heffernan, Monica Dolan, Tamsin Greig, Jack Farthing and Niccy Lin.

The controversy surrounding the Iraq war and the decisions leading up to the invasion made by Tony Blair and his government, as well as the powerful influence from the US, is something that’s been discussed endlessly and it almost seems as if there may be still more atrocities to discover. The story of Katherine Gun (Knightley) may be unknown to many and that could entirely improve the experience to really dive into its suspense as her story is quite incredible but even if you know the tale, you’ll likely still enjoy this telling of it. It’s fairly common these days to have a political drama be told with two perspectives, one of the people involved in the event and other of the journalists covering it, but it’s used often because it works. Mixing the story between Katharine dredging through the consequences of her actions and of Bright (Smith) and his colleagues pushing to discover the truth, adds tension and suspense, it gives the experience of the story being slowly revealed and sets a brilliant pace that only fastens as it nears its end.

Keira Knightley is undoubtedly one of the most consistent actresses working today, no matter the project her performances are always of the highest quality and she fits seamlessly into any period but what makes this portrayal stand out is just how regular of a character it is. Knightley is known for her lavish roles in period dramas with beautiful costumes and make-up but here, there’s no glamour or uncontrollable vivacity, but she shows how skilled she is at also playing your average woman. There have been a few examples over the years of her acting in a more subdued role but this may be her best, it’s understated but powerful, restrained yet emotive and utterly relatable. The rest of the cast is an impressive mix, Smith is yet again flexing his charm muscle and is a pleasure to watch, Fiennes as the white knight hoping to save the day has plenty of bite to him and his more aggressive moments are well done. Adam Bakri holds his own amongst a barrage of big names, his performances is exactly what’s needed for the role and he has a wonderful, sweet chemistry with Knightley. One of the more brief but noticeable performances comes from Peter Guinness, playing the detective who brings Katherine into custody, there’s such a rich air of arrogance and smugness that you’ll genuinely want to slap him which simply means his performance stands out which is certainly an achievement with this cast.

Looks can be deceiving in more ways than one with this film, its palette is very drab and dark, using a lot of blacks and greys but what that actually does is play to the average, everyday aspects of the story and of Katherine’s life. While she may work an unusual job, for the most part her life is much like anyone else’s and it’s of huge benefit that the film went down that route instead of trying to make her out like a saviour of the people, she was simply given a chance to do the right thing, even if it meant jeopardising her whole life, and she took it. The writing embraces that, her fear and apprehension about her future after she took that step, the dreadful uncertainty of waiting to her the final consequences, it’s suspenseful and gripping. It immediately draws you into her story and doesn’t let go until her ordeal has ended, it’s satisfying viewing with a genuine message of thinking about the bigger picture and doing what’s best for everyone, not just yourself.

The direction similarly doesn’t go for flash or try to inject a false sense of glamour, that style from Hood isn’t surprising after his work on Eye in the Sky, he clearly has the skills to bring a political drama to life in a captivating way. Its movement has a grace and a sleek quality that moves from scene to scene swiftly but smoothly. Perhaps the only potential misstep is the timing of its ending, like many other films based on real life, it switches to the footage of Katherine as she leaves the trial but strangely it then switches back to the actors knocking the power from its final punch. The scene itself is great but it’s a less satisfying choice to have the film not end on Katherine and it feels as though that timing could have been altered to not lose its otherwise smooth journey.

Official Secrets gives Keira Knightley the chance to show that her dramatic skills don’t require majesty or glamour, her performance as an everyday woman is one that likely will sit among the best of her career. Its story is one that downplays its hand, it rightly chose to focus more on the personal side of things instead of spending its time trying to explore illegal government actions, though that’s not to say it doesn’t still present the bigger picture, it just puts its focus in the right place. In doing so, it creates something that’s gripping and suspenseful, a film that will be enjoyable regardless of whether you know Katherine Gun’s story. It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker taking on more of Britain’s recent history, rather than yet another depiction of the first or second world war.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯

Available on Prime Video now

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