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Official Secrets

(2019) ** 1/2 R
112 min. IFC Films. Director: Gavin Hood. Cast: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Adam Bakri, Matt Smith, Jeremy Northam, Matthew Goode, Indira Varma, Rhys Ifans, Tamsin Greig.

/content/films/5178/1.jpgMany high-powered companies require non-disclosure acts that carry a threat of civil action should an employee or ex-employee spill sensitive information. But when the company is the government and the information state secrets, the consequence of talking goes beyond a lawsuit. If we’re talking, we’re talking treason. Gavin Hood’s latest film Official Secrets looks at just such a case, a historic principled violation of the U.K.’s Official Secrets Act.

Keira Knightley plays Katherine Gun, a translator for British intelligence who, in 2003, finds herself in a world-shaking dilemma. During the march to the Iraq War, Gun’s office receives an emailed NSA memo directing Government Communications Headquarters employees to aid in blackmailing UN officials ahead of the vote to authorize the war. Gun knows that the dirty-tricks scheme could mean tens of thousands of lost lives in a war justified by a house of cards: the U.S.’s insistence on Saddam Hussein’s mythical cache of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Aghast at being asked to help in secretly rigging a war under the noses of the British people, Gun quickly begins to contemplate acting as a whistleblower. With the help of a journalist-activist go-between, Gun gets the story to The Observer, where reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith) runs with it. Soon enough, an angry government begins beating the bushes to find the leaker, prompting another moral choice for Gun. The exploitable immigration status of her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri) and the threat of prosecution prompt Gun to seek legal counsel, which she gets from human-rights barrister Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes).

It’s a story worth shining a light on, Gun a hero deserving of a movie-star moment. And yet this docudrama struggles to give feature-length narrative shape to the story in a way that brings it to vibrant dramatic life. It’s interesting enough, but one can feel Hood straining—along with his co-screenwriters Gregory Bernstein & Sara Bernstein—to squeeze the docu for every bit of drama. Mostly that means turning the screws on Gun, with Knightley convincingly interpreting her as equal parts strident and scared at the enormity of her situation. Centering the film around her moral imperative is the way to go, but it presents a storytelling challenge when it comes to not only sustaining interest but building it.

Coming off of the pulse-pounding military suspenser Eye in the Sky, and understandably feeling the need to distinguish his film from a stolid BBC teledrama, Hood works to thicken the intrigue of his whistleblower story with swaths of a wonky journalistic tale (think Spotlight) and a legal crusade (think On the Basis of Sex). The seams begin to show as Hood, in an effort to create third-act tension, interpolates a race against time to save Yasar from deportation, when the real climax involves Gun standing in the dock of a British courtroom as others argue her fate (thereafter, a brief but punchy pre-credits coda, by employing an understated character moment, tops everything that precedes it).

Official Secrets retells an important modern story of telling truth to power—by telling truth to the people. It’s ironic that the story’s sky-high global stakes somehow fall short: with historic hindsight, the fate of the world holds no suspense, so it’s up to the personal story to generate meaty character drama. There, the admirable but somewhat stodgy Official Secrets feels spread thin.

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