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Non-Review Review: Official Secrets

Official Secrets is an interesting story with some solid performances, but it’s also an unstructured mess.

Official Secrets unfolds against the backdrop of the lead up to (and immediate aftermath of) the invasion of Iraq. It follows GCHQ employee Katharine Gun’s decision to leak a classified internal memo in an effort to prevent the nation’s march to war. Along the way, Katherine’s story intersects with the press who bungled their efforts to hold the government to account, before evolving into something that vaguely resembles a Kafka-esque legal thriller about a woman charged with treason who cannot defend herself because to share any information with her legal team would be treason of itself.

Bringing a mic to the gun fight.

All of this should provide the solid basis for a character-driven drama. The film’s structure and content are typical of second-shelf-from-the-top awards fare; it is dealing with weighty subject matter in such a way that it also plays as a commentary on contemporary society, it is structured in such a way as to serve as a showcase for its lead performer who has a track record as an awards winner, and it treats its narrative and its characters with the solemnity that they deserve. This is quite close to something like Denial, to pick an obvious example.

Unfortunately, Official Secrets lacks to the sort of tight focus and easy self-confidence that elevates the best of these films. Official Secrets is constantly pushing itself and trying to ensure that it is holding the audience’s attention. It never feels entirely sure where the drama lies within the story, and so spreads its attention too wide and too thin. The result is a disjointed and uneven exploration of a story (and character) that deserve better.

“It’s all memo, memo, memo…”

To offer credit where it is due, there is something very interesting in what co-writer and director Gavin Hood is trying to do with Official Secrets. It recalls the approach that Adam McKay took with Vice. Despite its historical setting, Official Secrets is a movie that has a point to make about the modern world. In its preoccupation with the notions of integrity and accountability, Official Secrets attempts to draw a clear connection between the lies and obfuscations of the War on Terror and the current post-truth era.

It’s an interesting argument. Can the chaos of the modern world all be traced back to the ease with which Tony Blair lies about Iraq and the eagerness with which the media swallowed it? Official Secrets understands that is a compelling hook. Indeed, the last line before the title card as Gun explicitly wonder what happens when world leaders are allowed to decide what are facts and what are not. It’s not the most provocative or original ideas, but it is the most compelling part of Official Secrets.

Dial it back.

Indeed, it helps to explain the movie’s secondary thread, which follows journalist Martin Bright at The Observer. Bright is concerned about the way in which the media has been coopted by the establishment, manipulated into serving as a mouthpiece for the government’s official line. Again, this is a thread that serves to draw a clear line between the early years of the twenty-first century and the present day, exploring the diminished stature of the conventional news media within an increasingly polarised and fragmented world.

The film hammers this home by having Bright directed to The Drudge Report at one point. It’s a strange and uncomfortable sequence that suggests an intersection of the media’s past and future, as a respected and high-profile newspaper finds itself under assault from a fringe and conspiratorial web blog. That sequence might be the most effective and unsettling in the entire film, the point at which Official Secrets most clearly articulates its central point and most strongly makes its case as a piece of timely political commentary.

Not-so-bright.

Unfortunately, Official Secrets never figures out a way to anchor the story that it wants to tell. The film has a surprisingly short attention span, drifting idly between a few different story threads. The film’s primary protagonist is Gun. It helps that Gun is played by Keira Knightley, no stranger to these sorts of films. However, once Katharine has leaked the memo, the narrative momentum shifts to Bright and the debate about whether to publish this. Bright is played by Matt Smith, a less established performer than Knightley, but one with his own impressive physicality and energy. The pair do not interact until the climax.

There is an argument that Official Secrets could work if it committed to swapping protagonists – if the memo itself became the primary character, a thread that weaves through a story with multiple focal points. However, Official Secrets tries to have it both ways. It continues to follow Gun’s trials and tribulations following the leak, while also documenting Martin’s efforts to authenticate the memo. This split focus hurts the film, as its attention alternates between these two threads without any clear sense of structure or purpose.

Couched in familiar trappings.

There’s a sense that Official Secrets doesn’t trust its story to completely engage the audience, and so resorts to a variety of clumsy narrative tricks in a misguided effort to keep the viewers invested. Official Secrets has a sturdy premise and a stacked cast, this should be enough to get it home, but the movie makes a number of choices designed to escalate from that set-up. These choices are both cynical and disruptive. They fragment the narrative and create the impression that the film’s actual stakes – the questions of government and media accountability – are a side show to more visceral elements.

To pick one example, Official Secrets opens in media res. Katherine Gun is marched into court. She is about to enter a plea when the film dramatically jumps back to explain how she ended up there. This is an obvious effort to build suspense. The goal is for the audience to wonder how Gun ended up there, but also how she is going to plead. However, these are ultimately distractions. The film takes about twenty minutes before the film illustrates what Gun did to end up in the dock, but it’s another forty on top of that before the film outlines the heightened stakes of the plea and why there’s even any ambiguity about it.

Arresting development.

At one point, Official Secrets even builds to a high-stakes race-against time car chase to Heathrow Airport at 4am in the morning. It is a surreal sequence in a film that is as much about process and methodology as Official Secrets, because Hood films it like he wants the audience to be on the edge of their seats as a character tries to overtake a pair of lumbering trucks on a freeway. It feels like a misjudged and misguided effort to inject some adrenaline into an otherwise stately film.

Big ideas are introduced, and then resolved off-screen. The film repeatedly alludes to the way in which the organs of state vindictively bring their bureaucratic weight to bear on Gun, with increasingly absurd and Orwellian restrictions on her ability to defend herself. At one point, she is told that to talk about her case with her solicitors would be another breach of confidentiality. However, this incredible weight upon Gun is dismissed in a later scene with a single line of dialogue referring to agreements negotiated off-screen.

Keep her posted.

To be fair, this is perhaps a result of the film’s efforts to offer a panoramic view of the whole scandal, but it ends up obfuscating the most interesting aspects of the story. In particular, one late twist is introduced as a legal “hail mary” in the third act, leading to an exposition dump from Tamsin Greig that deserves a lot more space to unpack, but ends up treated largely as a plot point. “We’re going to put the [Iraq] War on trial?” Shami Chakrabarti asks when she hears Ben Emmerson’s strategy. This is the premise of an entire movie of itself, but is shunted to a compacted third act.

This is all highly frustrating, because Official Secrets has the feel of a film that might work best simply throwing its cast into conversation with one another. After all, the material is high-stakes enough and the cast are pretty good. The film’s best scenes are dialogue driven. The most tense scene within Official Secrets hinges on a discussion of copy-editing policy within the offices of a major British newspaper, and that feels satisfying of itself. Official Secrets is a film about processes and systems, and both Hood and his cast can imbue these moments with a compelling dramatic weight.

All Goode?

Instead, Official Secrets clutters itself with unnecessary twists and turns. Even with its central performances there is a sense that “more is more”, the script repeatedly pushing characters into heightened confrontations that involve lots of unnecessary shouting. This applies to Knightley’s performance as Gun, but is most obvious with Rhys Ifans’ supporting performance as Ed Vulliamy. Vulliamy is an engaging character when he seems the most beaten down and defeated, when the gears are turning in his head. He becomes a lot less interesting when the film repeatedly has him shouting and rambling at maximum volume.

This is a shame, as Official Secrets insistence on sound and fury ends up obscuring the power of the story that it is trying to tell.

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One Response

  1. This bums me out. I really want to see this still, but nearly every review I’ve read mentions it just doesn’t hit the mark.

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