Cinematic Releases: Official Secrets (2019) - Reviewed

South-African writer-director Gavin Hood first burst onto the international film scene with his 2005 Academy Award winner Tsotsi before moving onto the political thriller film with 2007’s Rendition.  As with most first-time directors who score big quicker than others, he was naturally offered Hollywood jobs such as the Marvel movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the science fiction epic Ender’s Game.  Though directing for hire made Hood good money, it would seem he felt he’d strayed from his roots and his last picture Eye in the Sky and the recently released Official Secrets mark the filmmaker’s return to the political thriller.

Set in 2003 at the British Government Communications Headquarters (abbreviated to GCHQ), the film concerns British intelligence officer Katherine Gun (Keira Knightley) who risked her life and that of her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) by daring to leak a top secret memo from the NSA which detailed an impetus to spy on UN delegates with the goal of approving the war on Iraq.  The memo was picked up by The Observer and published in a report by journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), throwing Katherine Gun into a maelstrom of bullying, invasion of privacy and imprisonment for breaking the 1989 Official Secrets Act. 

Though clearly miscast, as the real Katherine Gun shown at the end of the film was blonde versus Knightley’s brown hair, Knightley picks up where she left off in The Imitation Game and manages to hold her own in an increasingly tense and claustrophobic environment.  Conveying anxiety and fear as well as mustering up the courage to walk through the door and defy her superiors, Knightley is splendid in the role and you can’t help but rally behind her noble cause. 

The most nuanced performance in the movie is of course by Matt Smith (Doctor Who; Lost River) who, against an ensemble cast of shouting and histrionic reporters, maintains an air of professionalism and calm despite all the yelling around him.  The only actors typecast in it are Rhys Ifans and Ralph Fiennes who are fine actors but more-or-less sleepwalk through their roles, resting on their laurels if you will. 

Visually it’s a fine-looking production though much of it takes place within enclosed office rooms surrounded by desks, computers and copy machines.  Shot by A Quiet Passion cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister who takes advantage of the Yorkshire countryside in more than a few scenic vistas.  The film also reunites Gavin Hood with composers Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian who offer up a tense electronic score adding to the mounting tension. 

Though the film tends to take the real figure Katherine Gun and filter it through the formula of the political thriller including a race-against-time chase sequence of sorts that feels lifted right out of a Clint Eastwood film, Official Secrets was an otherwise entertaining and engaging two hours which opened my eyes to a chapter in British history I was previously unaware of.  Moreover, Keira Knightley fans will enjoy the trials and tribulations faced by Katherine Gun and how despite everything she managed to hold her head high and do what she felt was right despite the intense pushback.  It’s a noble effort.

- Andrew Kotwicki