Official Secrets

Gavin Hood
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Keira Knightley
Screening Date:
  • 5 Sep 2023
  • Categories:
    Biography, Crime, Drama

    In this slow-burning political thriller (based on a true story), a British whistleblower (Keira Knightley) leaked information about illegal NSA activity designed to push the UN into sanctioning the 2003 Iraqi invasion. We are thrilled that the director, Gavin Hood, will introduce the film!

    What's this?
    F-Rated Bronze

    Film Notes

    Keira Knightley stars in ‘Official Secrets’ as a true-life whistle blower.

    The name Katharine Gun may not sound familiar to most Americans, but Daniel Ellsberg’s certainly does, and Ellsberg turns out to be Gun’s most eloquent advocate.

    The man who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 calls Gun’s actions “the most important and courageous leak I have ever seen. No one else — including myself — has ever done what Gun did: Tell secret truths at personal risk, before an imminent war, in time, possibly, to avert it.”

    Though the U.S. was involved, Gun’s dramatic story is largely a British one, which is why it’s not well known here. The crackling “Official Secrets,” with Keira Knightley playing Katharine and director Gavin Hood in charge, has the wherewithal to change that dynamic.

    Hood, whose last film was the Helen Mirren-starring “Eye in the Sky,” about the ethics of drone strikes, has gotten quite good at the kinds of political thrillers where dates and locations appear at the bottom of the screen.

    A model of professionalism and energy, “Official Secrets” moves along at a brisk clip. It’s paced like a police procedural, but it focuses not on an investigator but rather a moral exemplar who takes a principled stand in defiance of the price that has to be paid.

    Already twice nominated for an Oscar, Knightley gives one of her strongest performances here, using her innate steeliness and presence to create a convincing portrait of a courageous zealot who believes in right and wrong in an almost biblical sense.

    As written by Sara Bernstein and Gregory Bernstein and the director, “Official Secrets” has something of a three-act structure, with a different actor taking the lead in each act.

    The film starts on Feb. 24, 2004, with Knightley as Katharine standing in the dock at the Old Bailey being accused of violating the Official Secrets Act and committing treason.

    We then flash back a year and encounter Katharine on the one hand living happily with her husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Kurdish Turk who has applied for British citizenship, but also very unhappy at the state of the world.

    More specifically, Katharine is upset at the way Prime Minister Tony Blair is misleading the public as he pounds the drum for war with Iraq, screaming “bloody liar” when he appears on her TV screen.

    Though you might not guess it, Katharine is herself something of a genteel covert operative (“The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War” is the title of a book about her) who works for the British intelligence agency GCHQ and uses her fluency in Mandarin to listen in on phone conversations.

    It is in her capacity as a GCHQ operative that Katharine is copied on a secret email that tells her GCHQ is expected to cooperate with America’s NSA on a covert project to spy on U.N. Security Council members with an eye toward being able to blackmail them into voting yes on invading Iraq.

    This seems so deeply wrong to Katharine that the thought of keeping quiet about it almost makes her physically ill. After much agonizing, she makes a copy of the email and gives it to a friend with the understanding that it will make its way to a journalist and see the light of day.

    Though Knightley appears throughout the film, the second act shifts focus to journalist Martin Bright, briskly played by Matt Smith, a former Doctor Who who also was Prince Philip in “The Crown.”

    Bright works for the Observer, and this section largely deals with the nuts-and-bolts complexities of the process through which the newspaper decides to publish the story.

    When it appears as a front-page exclusive, all hell breaks loose and Katharine decides to give herself up to spare her coworkers from becoming involuntary suspects.

    This leads to “Official Secrets’” third part, the time leading up to and following her trial, and that is dominated in the best possible sense by Ralph Fiennes, an actor of immense but casual power, as her attorney Ben Emmerson.

    A serious attempt apparently was made to be as faithful as possible to the complexities of this case, and that results in involving dialogue on various moral and legal dilemmas. Not business as usual for pulpy thrillers, but Katharine Gun is an unusual woman and her story deserves no less.

    BY KENNETH TURAN, Los Angeles Times, AUG. 27, 2019 

    'Official Secrets': Sundance Review

    A whistleblower risks everything in order to do what she thinks is right — even if it ultimately doesn’t make any difference — in Official Secrets, a sturdy, entertaining political thriller that pushes all the right buttons and triggers all the right outraged reactions. Keira Knightley is persuasive as Katharine Gun, a British GCHQ employee who in 2003 leaked a sensitive document in the hopes of preventing her country from invading Iraq — a decision that did nothing to stop that war but found her facing imprisonment. Director Gavin Hood gives the proceedings a rousing electricity, and he’s aided by a cast which leans into the story’s urgency and continued relevance.

    This Sundance premiere will inspire comparisons to Spotlight and The Post — not to mention The Report, which also debuted in Park City. Official Secrets has a star-studded cast that also includes Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and Ralph Fiennes, and the film’s moral indignation should find a receptive audience among those who opposed the Iraq War.

    As the film begins, it’s 2003 and the UK and US are preparing to invade Iraq, their plans waiting on a UN resolution authorising the removal of Saddam Hussein. But as that process slows to a halt, GCHQ translator Katharine Gun (Knightley) receives an email that contains a joint UK-US proposal to find blackmail material on individuals in countries that are part of the UN who have yet to vote. Gun is furious at this discovery — she’s opposed to this war because she knows that Iraq has no links to Al-Qaeda, which executed the 9/11 attacks — and she decides to let the world know about this top-secret operation.

    Gun’s decision to leak the document — which attracts the attention of Observer journalists Martin Bright (Smith) and Peter Beaumont (Goode) — is not one she takes lightly. Married to a Muslim immigrant, Yasar (Adam Bakri), who could be deported because of her actions, Gun nonetheless confesses to the crime to save her co-workers from being investigated. But not only does her whistleblowing fail to halt the momentum towards war with Iraq, she could face seriously jail time unless Ben Emmerson (Fiennes), a crusading solicitor, can save her.

    Unlike his last film, 2015’s Eye In The Sky, Hood smoothly mixes thrills with political commentary in Official Secrets. And certainly, audiences have seen this kind of journalistic drama before. (Films such as Vice and Doug Liman’s Fair Game have also explored how the West orchestrated its ill-fated invasion of Iraq using specious evidence of WMD.) But Official Secrets’ pleasing familiarity doesn’t diminish the story’s suspense. There’s still plenty of excitement in watching smart, principled men and women working together to defeat corruption, and Hood and editor Megan Gill keep the film moving along at a breezy clip.

    Knightley shows real steel as Gun, giving the character a righteous fury as she refuses to sit by while her government conspires to blackmail other countries in order to justify this encroaching war. The Oscar-nominated actress lets us observe Gun’s torn loyalties: on the one hand, she wants to protect her vulnerable husband, but she also must listen to her conscience, which tells her that this invasion is morally wrong. Knightley has a few high-emotion moments, but for the most part her rage is pitched at a slow burn, which makes it more resonant.


    What you thought about Official Secrets

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    13 (68%) 4 (21%) 2 (11%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 19
    Film Score (0-5): 4.58

    Collated Response Comments

    I think it is fair to say that the first screening of the new season went down well.

    I suppose it did help that we had the director, Gavin Hood along with the journalist Martin Bright with us to introduce the film and do 30 minutes of Q&A after the screening.

    There were 140 members and guests present. However we only had 19 responses via the website. We will have paper comments sheets available for the next screening. The film scored 4.58.

    Your collected comments are shown below:

    "Brilliant film, a well told story which left one also quite disturbed as to how the political system in this country really works rather than what we would like to believe. Deserves to have classic status in years to come and also respect for the public service it delivered".

    "Wow, as tense as any fictional thriller, so it was amazing to be reassured by Gavin that it was all true! A cracking cast too. And having the chance to ask questions of Gavin and Martin afterwards was an extra enhancement".

    "This must be a very fine juggling act. On the face of it the story is both interesting and exciting and yet very little in it lends itself easily to cinema; no real action and a lot of complex ideas to map out. That it is indeed an enthralling film with real jeopardy and moral weight is because of rather than despite the lack of on screen pyrotechnics. All the main players are excellent, Keira Knightley dialling down the glamour and excuding real gravitas. Gavin and Martin were very engaging and interesting, the question I wanted to ask Martin was; 'What is it like acting in scene in which someone else is playing you?'"

    "Riveting story line".

    "Interesting that a story well known by members of a certain age should still grip the attention. Script ,acting and directing were all first class. A major bonus to have the Director and journalist on whose story the film was based, present to answer audience questions afterwards".

    "Excellent gripping stuff, the more so for being true. Q&A after absolutely fascinating - great speakers. So many unanswered questions!"

    "Excellently paced film which explores the notions of personal (and patriotic) integrity. This was the second time I've watched this film - and it seemed just as fresh (and quietly shocking) as the first viewing. Gavin Hood is a director who is able to pull together a very talented cast, but - most importantly - provide them (and us) with a strong vision of what he wanted to present on the screen. It's a film that continues to roll around in your mind long afterwards. Fabulous evening as both he and Martin Bright were able to answer questions after the film. Will go down in GFS history!"

    "Great cast and a truthful script gave us a rollercoaster thriller for the new season. The Q&A with Gavin Hood and Martin Bright was enlightening".

    "A brilliant start to the new season including an excellent Q &A session afterwards with the director and journalist who broke the story".

    "'Official Secret' was a terrific film and a brilliant kick-start to the new year. What a wonderful treat to have both Gavin and Martin engage with the audience! A truly memorable experience! Thank you!

    "I'd give the movie 5 stars, and I'm sure this will be categorised as a classic, 'must-see' movie.

    It was educational and enlightening, illustrating that when actions are grounded in purity, love, humanity, a sense of justice, courage, and compassion, and when one follows good intentions and intuition, they invariably attract the right people, leading to positive outcomes, including the movie itself (with its understanding director, outstanding actors, and compelling script).

    My hope is that this positive chain will continue and guide us all towards a better future. Based on Ms. Katherine Gun's interviews, she seems to have some regrets, especially given that her actions did not actually stop the Iraqi war. However, I hope to think that the film will serve to continue narrating her tale of immense bravery rooted in true humanism. It will hopefully plant seeds to inspire many and encourage actions similar to Katherine's, fostering greater humanity for future generations.

    With the looming threat of a third world war, I sincerely hope that the film casts a beacon of hope. Being Anglo-Japanese, I know from my family's experiences on both sides that civilians suffer greatly from warfare, often facing long-term mental issues, regardless of a nation's outcome. The suffering is equal. Everyone loses in war, including war merchants who may enjoy short-term profits, but they will certainly face an inevitable downfall (as history teaches us). I hope this film promotes the idea that our primary goal is global happiness, rather than the fleeting enrichment of a few at the long-term expense of many. I also hope that viewers leave with a sense of courage, love, and humanity, ready to take action when necessary before it's too late. Before dictators rule the world again. Could this film serve as a pro-peace measure, preventing the next war? I believe it could.

    Setting the political aspects aside, on a personal level, I viewed the film as a touching love story of a dedicated, beautifully-minded young couple truly in love. I'm delighted to learn that the couple is well in Turkey, raising their daughter".

    "A cracker to start the season, especially with very welcome and thoughtful Q&A session. With much of the plot coming from what happens on a computer screen, a range of facial expressions take the place of thriller derring-do. It kept my attention as well as carefully prompting a sense of outrage. Plot was decisive through a smoothly composed script which takes us into the murky depths of government duplicity. Liked the quick-witted dialogue in the newsroom with the intimate drama between Gun and Yasar. The film's success was based on questions about moral responsibility in a world governed by some pretty dubious morals. Liked the links into the domestic dimension of the protagonist's life which aren't that simple either. Good that film didn't lecture us or take a particular party political viewpoint. Knightley's portrayal of relative outward restraint and vulnerability combined to her basic sense of decency is well shown. Fiennes mixture of probing sharpness moved the plot on well, as did Matt Smith's varied and dogged determination that contrasted well with Ifans fearless tenacious, journalist Ed Vulliamy. Strong cast adds to the film's weightiness importance".

    "What a start to the season. An excellent film and the added bonus of being able to hear from the Director and one of the main characters. Embarrassed to say I don't recall the story from the time and hadn't heard of or seen the film before, but with such a strong cast and riveting storyline, I don't understand why! A great example of what I really enjoy about GFS. Thanks".

    "Incredible film, great to have Gavin and Martin with us. I think their comments about how real the film was helped solidify its impact for me. Sometimes you watch a film "based on" and lose touch, but clearly not with this film. A great start to the season".



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