By Olivia Popp
This article is the first in a series of three articles on the 28th Filmfest Hamburg, taking place from September 26, 2019, to October 5, 2019.
For the most part, Gavin Hood’s “Official Secrets” stirred up a big buzz at Sundance. But after a late summer/early fall release, I heard so little of the film that I wasn’t sure exactly where it went. Perhaps this thriller flick could have had a bigger opening, with Keira Knightley excelling in her role as British whistleblower Katharine Gun, who leaked a secret memo on a US operation to blackmail UN diplomats into swaying their votes on the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It’s an extremely important and intensely relevant story for today’s political climate, to say the least. Yet, despite the compelling big-budget narrative, “Official Secrets” unfortunately falls short with a somewhat unextraordinary plot. And here’s where I make the distinction between story and plot, because not to say the story itself isn’t compelling, not to mention important — it certainly is! It’s that with such a complex and nonlinear story, “Official Secrets” seems to strip down Gun’s tale almost too much, leaving behind B-plot storylines that could have been so much richer and emotional, like the government’s egregious attempts to deport her Turkish husband in order to slow down Gun.
The actual Katharine Gun herself was at the screening I attended, and she mentioned that the film follows her own story relatively accurately. For “Official Secrets,” the fact that the narrative does closely follow Gun’s story is both good and bad. On one hand, it’s certainly thrilling to realize certain events actually took place in real life; on the other hand, many moments are quite clunky and tend to fall into familiar patterns rather than playing out like a thriller. It’s a slow burn that, in many ways, wastes time being too true to life.
Popularly known on the Internet as the queen of period dramas, Knightley in a contemporary role was a lovely sight, and her performance is the true driver of the thriller aspect (and really the movie’s saving grace). Even with Matt Smith’s journalist Martin Bright, Knightley and Gun are at the center of the story; the audience’s emotional weight also rests on Gun’s decisions, and Knightley plays her with grace and determine resilience. She truly carries “Official Secrets” in all its dramatic glory — Gun is a real life hero we can empathize with, driven by her courageous decision-making and self-sacrifice against the political powers for the good of others.
As I watched, I kept thinking back to “Spotlight” and how much I enjoyed that film. “Official Secrets” seems to have been crafted from the material, all the way down to the color grading. They’re both biographical dramas based around the uncovering of a story with an element of journalism and secrecy. There’s an emphasis on realism and simple but effective cinematography, with nothing flashy or anything truly out of left field. These elements play to both films’ benefits, but at the same time, “Spotlight” rides on the success of its story, while “Official Secrets” leaves the audience asking whether the story is more exciting as simply a true story rather than a movie.
Many argue that “Spotlight” isn’t a thriller. I would argue that if “Official Secrets” is, then “Spotlight” is too. It’s certainly not an action film, but the audience is left waiting on the edge of their seats to see what’s next. There’s an element of anticipation that’s lacking from “Official Secrets” that “Spotlight” brings to the table (which was awarded Best Picture in 2016).
Lastly, I invite you to guess how many times the phrase “Official Secrets Act” is uttered in the film. I don’t know the answer, but one day I’ll count. It certainly grew into an accidental joke as “Official Secrets Act” becomes spoken with increasing intensity and desperation in hushed tones and British accent as the film goes on — and then you think back to the title of the film and laugh some more. For a thriller that leaves something to be desired, it’s a tidbit to enjoy.
Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.