'Official Secrets' explores enormous emotional toll of whistle-blowing

  • Translator Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) discovers information on the invasion of Iraq in "Official Secrets."

    Translator Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) discovers information on the invasion of Iraq in "Official Secrets." Courtesy of IFC Films

By Ann Hornaday
The Washington Post
Posted9/5/2019 6:00 AM

"Official Secrets" - ★ ★ ★

Keira Knightley spends a lot of time looking tense and nauseated in "Official Secrets," wherein she plays real-life whistle-blower Katharine Gun.


In 2003, Gun was working as a translator for British intelligence when she became privy to correspondence indicating that the United States and the United Kingdom were conspiring to blackmail other countries in the U.N. Security Council into supporting an invasion of Iraq. The information made it into the press, Gun admitted that she was the leaker, and she was eventually tried under the country's Official Secrets Act.

Directed with workmanlike efficiency by Gavin Hood from a script he co-wrote with Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein, "Official Secrets" revisits Gun's story with an emphasis on the alternately clubby and labyrinthine institutions she came up against, as well as the emotional damage she incurred when she made a decision that some viewed as heroic and others as a betrayal. Although Knightley's Gun often seems to be a passive figure, buffeted by the machinations of those around her, the film's honesty about the enormous personal costs of whistle-blowing is a welcome relief from more romanticized heroics.

Hood has enlisted a fabulous cast of supporting actors to play the men who help and hinder Gun's attempt at moral clarity, including Ralph Fiennes as her idealistic but also practical-minded attorney, Matt Smith and Matthew Goode as editors of the London Observer, and Rhys Ifans, who delivers a histrionic portrayal of the Observer reporter who broke Gun's story.

"Official Secrets" succumbs to cliches of the genre -- a scene staged in a parking garage is no less predictable for a character invoking Deep Throat -- and it doesn't exemplify scintillating filmmaking. But what the film lacks in style it makes up for in the kind of dogged, unselfconscious integrity that Gun comes to stand for and that, in light of the bizarre turns U.S. and British politics have taken in intervening years, feels increasingly like an artifact of the past.

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It's sickening to revisit the dissembling, self-deceptions and outright lies that led to a misadventure that still reverberates today; it's even more troubling to consider that very little seems to have been learned, and no one held to account, as a result. Like the upcoming drama "The Report," about the Senate investigation into alleged torture at CIA black sites, "Official Secrets" uses the recent past to invite viewers to interrogate our present and, more specifically, what they're willing to risk to prevent a disastrous future.

• • •

Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans

Directed by: Gavin Hood

Other: An IFC Films release. Rated R for language. 112 minutes.

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