It’s initially jarring to see Keira Knightley wearing sweatpants, casually watching TV. The actress is now almost exclusively associated with corsets and massive powdered wigs, having embraced period roles because they give her meatier material to work with. And then, after a beat, you remember that technically, Official Secrets fits the bill. Taking place over 2003-2004, the action many millennials remember from childhood/early adulthood is now distant enough to be history, and well worth revisiting, since, like bootcut jeans, everything old is new again.
Official Secrets tells the true story of Katharine Gun (Knightley), a British whistleblower, who, at just 29 years old, leaked a controversial memo about an illegal NSA-sponsored operation designed to blackmail UN Security Council members into voting in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. When the press publish the document in full, Gun confesses to her bosses, and is arrested under the Official Secrets Act, which equates such a security breach with treason.
Directed by Gavin Hood, who co-wrote the script with Sara and Gregory Bernstein, the film is about as far from the bombastic, wild rollercoaster of Vice as possible. Rather than focusing on those in power, it instead turns its lens on a regular woman, propelled by conscience and loyalty to the people she served, to break the law. When we first meet Katharine, she’s heckling news footage of Tony Blair from her couch: "Just because you're the prime minister doesn't mean you get to make up your own facts!”
It’s a line that’s almost comical given today’s context — if you think it was bad then, just wait Katharine. But it’s precisely that knowledge of what comes next that makes Official Secrets so frustratingly relevant.
I was 13 years old in 2003, and very invested in my dad turning off the news so I could watch The O.C., so in that sense Official Secrets acted as a helpful contemporary history lesson. Real news footage of George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Colin Powell punctuate the fictionalised re-telling, reminding us that this isn’t all just for kicks.
Most of Official Secrets is a waiting game — will Katharine leak the memo? Will she be found out? Will she be prosecuted? There’s an added All The President’s Men-meets-Spotlight vibe to the secondary plot, following the efforts of journalists for The Observer — reporters Martin Bright (Matt Smith) and Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), crotchety D.C. correspondent Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans), and tough editor Roger Alton (Game of Thrones’ Conleth Hill) — to authenticate the document before publication.
But the downside of true stories is that often, they have disappointingly ordinary endings. Katharine may have risked everything to stop the war, but as we know, the invasion still happened, and a quick Google can tell you that her trial, which begins with her standing in a caged contraption straight out of the Wizengamot, came to a pretty anticlimactic — if reassuring — conclusion. There’s no rousing cry for justice served, no big Churchillian speech. Just ordinary people who did their best, and failed. That’s not to minimize the steep emotional price paid by Gun, which the film successfully conveys. In fact, it’s almost fitting that a deeply unpopular war — one that would eventually limp along for years — also inspires more subdued narratives— even on-screen.
That Official Secrets is still compelling is largely down to its powerfully competent cast. Knightley carries much of that burden on her shoulders and as usual, delivers a complex, layered performance of a woman who would much rather be laying in bed with her hot husband (Adam Bakri) than stealthily printing classified documents. Her reaction when she comes across the front page of The Observer on the day of publication is visceral and physical, the response of someone who acted on an impulse, without thinking about potential consequences. It feels normal, and accessible — just how an amateur would approach something of this magnitude. Knightley is well-matched by the no-nonsense pragmatism of her lawyer, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who takes up much of the film’s second act as he comes up with a brilliant plan to use her case to litigate against the war itself.
Still, I wish the film had done more to build up Katharine as a character beyond her righteous cause. We know a few personal details, most prominently focused around her marriage to Kurdish asylum seeker Yasar, who bears the brunt of the backlash against her actions, but not much beyond that. Without really getting to know her, Official Secrets feels drier and less personal that it needs to be, no matter its importance.