Official Secrets has been widely described as a spy movie, though it’s only one in the technical sense that its protagonist — Keira Knightley as the real-life 2003 whistleblower Katharine Gun — was a spy of the decidedly desk-bound, unBondish, even un-le-Carréish type that GCHQ employs these days. Spending most of her time eavesdropping on the Chinese from a cubicle in Gloucestershire, she was sufficiently appalled by an American memo proposing blackmail to gain support for the Iraq War that she leaked it, and the rest was history.
But that it was history is part of the problem with Official Secrets, which premiered at Sundance toward the beginning of this year and was bizarrely released in the US almost two months before the UK, despite being of almost exclusively British interest.
Gavin Hood, who directs and co-writes, handled rather similar themes of surveillance, responsibility and British-American collaboration in a gripping and thoughtful style in Eye in the Sky, where he had the space to explore a fictional story; but his previous film about the War on Terror, 2007’s Rendition, was less well-received and perhaps hampered by the need to be faithful to the facts, and sensitive to the real people involved.
That need is certainly what brings down Official Secrets, and it is more of a this-happened-then-that-happened catalogue of events than a thriller. But this weakness arises not only because the audience might know how Gun’s story ended; she’s not, in fact, remained very famous.
In larger part, it’s because Hood seems unwilling to invest her with much character at all, beyond some blandness about being an ordinary person anxious to do the right thing; and also because he seems undecided whether he wants to give us a courtroom drama, or a newspaper film, or an examination of an individual under pressure. Trying to mix all three, he never allows any of them enough time for us to fully understand issues, or for unresolved tension to extend over multiple scenes.
Probably it fails most as a newspaper movie, and although there are some decent performances by Matt Smith, Conleth Hill and a slightly scenery-chewing Rhys Ifans as Observer journalists, Official Secrets would be no worse off without its newsroom scenes.
In fact, it might be better off: we’re told that the paper splashing her story was a surprise to Gun, and we might feel the shock too if we hadn’t just witnessed it being discussed in a rather stagey editorial conference.
Verging on the ludicrous, meanwhile, is the momentous weight — complete with Big Ominous Music — given to an episode where it’s discovered that the paper had misspelled parts of the leaked memo, potentially casting unwanted doubt on its authenticity. Hood builds this up with panicky dialogue to seem like a turning point, then immediately backs away by revealing it was just a proof-reading error, and never touches on the matter again. I’m all for sub-editors having their moment in the spotlight, but the bathos is just silly; All the President’s Men it ain’t, and not even The Post.
Later on you get the impression that Official Secrets might become more of a legal saga, with Ralph Fiennes as Gun’s lawyer (from Liberty) suddenly emerging as effectively the co-star. Again, though, Hood never focuses on this one narrative thread long enough for us to really grasp more than the outline of Gun’s dilemma, or to understand the personal dynamics between her and her lawyers, or among them.
It doesn’t help, of course, that everyone is so damn English and nice: there’s not an orange jumpsuit in sight, and even the GCHQ internal security chap and Scotland Yard detective assigned to her case (well-played by Shaun Dooley and Peter Guinness respectively) seem relatively pleasant guys in the circumstances, as does the attorney-general (Jeremy Northam, also good). Hood may well be trying, like Oliver Stone with Snowden, to make the point that the enemy is the system, not any one individual; but it also makes any sense of threat rather remote and abstract.
It’s notable, in fact, that the only genuinely tense and upsetting scenes in the movie are those depicting the persecution of Gun’s asylum-seeking husband (Adam Bakri, giving one of the best of many strong performances in the film). But Hood’s attempts to depict the damage done to their home life by the case are, yet again, defused by being so brief that they almost seem perfunctory.
Knightley does these episodes few favours. Though she handles the part competently, there’s still a nagging sense that she’s a bit of a one-size-fits-all actor: it’s difficult to see a lot of space between her Katharine Gun and her Colette or her 1940s wife in The Aftermath, two other slowly strengthening women. In those films, as here, she is consistently upstaged by seemingly more complex characters, who we can imagine having inner lives in a way she never quite manages to convey; though playing Gun as “normal” is very reasonable, surely that doesn’t mean playing her as uninteresting is necessary?
She fades away too easily in the company of other actors, and to give her presence in the film, Hood has to resort to excessive close-ups; but even so, he seems torn between concentrating on the woman who set the whole saga in motion, and those who then actually did stuff while she remained essentially (albeit understandably) passive, and off he whisks us for another scene with journalists or lawyers.
The movie is never dull, even if not much actually happens, minute-to-minute; much of that is down to the largely excellent cast, who often help us overlook how much info-dumping the script contains (something that’s almost unavoidable in this kind of film). And it generally looks and feels very like the early 2000s, even if the Gloucestershire scenes are rather obviously filmed in Yorkshire.
But there’s a dreadful so-whatness to Official Secrets which proves, for the umpteenth time, that important stories and significant themes don’t in themselves make for good cinema — all the more so, perhaps, when the director himself can’t decide which of the stories he truly wants to tell.
This article was originally published in The View From 8D, a Quora space.