Official Secrets is the type of film that hits you in the gut and sends you reeling. Though far from perfect, director Gavin Hood’s biopic overcomes its flaws and leaves you with a message that sticks around long after the movie ends. Unlike similar historical biopics, Hood’s film doesn’t pander or preach to its audience, but it does possess a sense of urgency and level of suspense made even more compelling by the plot’s real-life origins.
Official Secrets is the story of Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), a British intelligence specialist who becomes an internationally known whistleblower. While at work, Katharine receives a shocking memo suggesting that the United Kingdom is aiding the United States in blackmailing members of the United Nations Security Council. They aim to secure votes in favour of the Iraq war.
Gun can’t sit back and let her government lie to its people and enter a potentially devastating war. Though she struggles with the decision, her conscience wins out, and with the drop of an envelope, a whistleblower is born.
Hood, who directed the similarly zealous The Eye in the Sky, shows his growth as a filmmaker, here. And the film features several standout moments. The entire sequence where Gun saves and prints the memo until she drops it off in a post box is expertly crafted and full of tension. The segment where Gun makes a labyrinthine entrance into the striking British courtroom where her fate hangs in the balance is just as riveting.
One of Official Secrets’ drawbacks is the less than inspired camera work; it lacks a cinematic quality. And the script from Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, and Gavin Hood often feels leaden, as if it’s unable to transition the righteous anger on the page into a more intriguing narrative.
What saves Official Secrets from being just another average, well-intentioned film is the strong performances and great editing (Megan Gill). The film belongs to Keira Knightley, who after her scene-stealing work in Colette looks poised to build a comeback. Knightley overcomes some weak direction and a lacking script and elevates the material to make the audience feel and understand who Katharine Gun is, why she did what she did, and what is at stake.
Knightley delivers a stunning piece of acting during the movie’s final scene. The sheer strength of her performance at that moment drives home the impact of all the character suffered. This may be the picture that gets this fine actor back into the Oscar race. But regardless of award merits, Knightley’s performance here is a worthy addendum to her career.
Official Secrets features a number of excellent characters actors in supporting roles. Everyone carries themselves onscreen in a manner that suggests they spent a long time in their characters’ shoes. But make no mistake, the story is most engaging when it centers on Gun and Knightley makes sure that every time she is on screen, the audience takes notice. Her performance works on two levels; making viewers aware of the bigger picture – the war crimes happening around us – and what it means for one person to take a courageous stand against them, consequences be damned.