The real-life Katherine Gun represents one of the rare figures in modern political history who has the courage to say something when everyone else remains silent. Set in 2003, the story of Official Secrets revolves around how she leaked vital information to the Observer about an illegal mission which was put in motion to leverage the start of Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the way this was handled under the Official Secrets Act.
It’s easy to think of her actions in abstract terms, but if it came down to the thought of going behind your boss’ and friends’ backs at your regular day job because of a personal conviction — I’m not sure many of us would have acted with the same fortitude that Gun did.
Director: Gavin Hood
In quaint Cheltenham, England, GCHQ run their operations. Gun (Kiera Knightley) has been working there for five years, and has a good relationship with her colleagues and a happy marriage. There’s a simple, cosy aesthetic to her little house and its cobbled street. With a hulking great TV that savours of a recent past and bootcut jeans in every frame, it’s remarkably easy to believe that we’re in 2003 (even films depicting events just over a decade ago should be approached as period pieces). But the setting instantly seems to lull you into a false sense of security.
We glimpse snippets of the political undercurrent in the background of all this: a BBC news segment with presenters and footage from 2003; protests raging throughout the streets of London. Even radical friends who live in and around the small town of Cheltenham get defensive, even aggressive, when pushed to talk about the war. The country is a pot just waiting to boil over.
It’s not uncommon for Gun to have a conversation on the way into work with her colleagues in Chinese, indicating at once the level of proficiency that’s expected from them. Her team works in a unit that intercepts and translates government messages from overseas, the idea being to decipher whether or not any of them pose a threat to the UK. For all intents and purposes, she’s a spy. But while a lot of her workload is fairly low-level for the agency, a memo from her boss one day startles her. Addressed to her whole team, it contains sensitive information about a plot to essentially frame information in such a way that would lead to the inevitable takeover of Iraq.
When Gun leaks the memo and it reaches New York via the Observer in London, top secret military information is in the hands of an all-too-obliging press. One scene involving spellcheck at the Observer office is a tour de force of minimalist suspense. As the narrative escalates and becomes more involved, we learn more about Gun’s backstory. Her marriage to Turkish-born Muslim Yasar (Adam Bakri) is a prosaic and happy one, but it’s used as leverage in the case against her. There’s expert power-play between the lawyers involved and the titular Official Secrets Act happens to be the most compelling part of the story.
The Act stipulates that, by sharing any information from the government outside of the job at GCHQ, an individual is breaking the law. Therefore, by not only leaking the memo in the first place, but by sharing further details of the case with lawyers, Gun is potentially putting herself at risk of an unlimited number of sentences for her actions. Although she believes her actions to be just and she’s aided by sympathetic lawyers, it’s one person’s moral convictions versus the law.
While stories of whistleblowers have been far from uncommon in the last few years, Katherine Gun’s story takes on special significance because of the UK/US power relations that it examines. It has the candour of thrillers like Scott Z. Burns’ The Report, where a single individual makes a costly but brave decision to question the whole government’s systematic regime. In that case it was a question of torture in the wake of the Iraq War, but with Official Secrets it’s a case of questioning the motivation that started it off. That two similar films should be released so close together speaks for their relevance but also encourages viewers to think about the current political backdrop.
I think that the cast had a lot to do with the film’s success: alongside Knightley, Peter Beaumont played Matthew Goode and Ralph Fiennes portrayed sympathetic lawyer Ben Emmerson. Matt Smith was excellent as Observer reporter Martin Bright, channeling not only his gravitas as royalty in The Crown but also his inner, erratic Dr Who from years gone by. Other notable appearances included Rhys Ifhans and Myanna Buring, and the cast really propelled a narrative that could have easily been written off as an overused template into genuinely engaging material.
And it’s masterfully suspenseful. Seedy dealings in underground car parks fondly refer to a whole genre of political thriller that have almost been lost to history. Some might argue that Kiera Knightley was miscast as a whistleblower, given her usual period drama/romcom remit. But I think it gives her a chance to remind viewers of her not insignificant performance capabilities which are often taken for granted. The film might also come under scrutiny as an accurate biopic, but remember that it’s intended to dramatise the effect on an individual and her immediate circle, as opposed to document all the implications of the war.
After watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of the way that Katherine Gun’s life rolled out in a way she wholly unexpected. Perhaps she thought GCHQ would be the career move of a lifetime, but I doubt she could have foreseen what happened. It left me thinking that maybe her life led her towards that purpose. Somehow, some people become known for one unexpected but significant act rather than for all the other small things with which we can be so preoccupied.