In 2019, controversy is a famous actor pretending to have a brain injury, dancing to the music of convicted paedophile Gary Glitter. A thriller accusing British and American governments of blackmailing small countries into supporting an illegal war in which million die barely creates a ripple. Times change; the kind of covert behaviour that a film like Official Secrets attempts to uncover is now shouted to the press from the White House lawn.
The man and his dog in the street now know that the Iraq war was instigated under false pretences; Gavin Hood’s film is, at least, a timely reminder of that unhappy truth. Based on the lugubriously titled book The Spy Who Tried to Stop A War; Katharine Gunn and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion, Official Secrets may be raking over material that is cold potatoes, but as a look at what the personal consequences might be for a whistle-blower, it’s prescient and timely. Gunn (Keira Knightley) works at GCHQ and happens on an email from the US attempting to blackmail small countries into supporting a war via their UN vote. She takes the story to an ex-employee who filters it to the press via The Observer’s Martin Bright (Matt Smith) and human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), but when her identity comes to light, it’s Gunn’s Muslim husband who faces deportation as a direct consequence of her actions.
Official Secrets has an important true story to tell, and Knightley is the ideal centre; after a couple of duds in the form of Colette and The Aftermath, Hood’s film makes good use of her national treasure quality; with lank hair, chunky knitwear and unflattering anoraks, she’s a dowdy figure ideal for these kind of down-beat shenanigans. There’s a decent support cast including the perennially underused Matthew Goode, but there’s also some shonky details that distracts; the newspaper office Bright works in doesn’t feel right at all, a cartoonish affair featuring shouty, sweary editors and sniping, pencil-pushing underlings.
Leaving such details aside, Official Secrets is a better-than-average spy story that never takes leave of its sense of outrage; watching the characters curse as Bush and Blair waltz across their tv screens, it’s a reminder of yesterday’s news, and how it might inform that radically different political problems of today. Gunn is lionised by this film; the point is that unless the public pay attention and act, the bad guys will always win the day.