' ' Cinema Romantico: Official Secrets

Monday, September 16, 2019

Official Secrets

“Official Secrets” begins at the end, with Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) employee turned whistleblower standing trial for having violated the UK’s Official Secrets Act. The Judge asks how she pleads and Gavin Hood’s film flashes back a year. The real-life story, then, in which Katharine leaked an American NSA memo urging the GCHQ to twist arms to sanction the 2003 Iraq War, leading to an ingenious legal maneuver in which her barrister, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), sought to essentially put the country on trial for going to war under false pretenses, causing the prosecution to back down before the trial started, becomes about calling the government’s bluff. As such, “Official Secrets” is like one long flashback from the poker table, the card-player ruminating over her entire life before deciding whether to fold or go all-in. And though Hood’s aesthetic is glossy professionalism rather than gritty 70s-ish paranoia, meaning “Official Secrets” can sometimes skew bland despite its explosive source material, ultimately it still works not least because of Knightley, cannily creating a character coming into her own amidst the biggest moment of her life.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s motivations are mostly recounted via television, which is not lazy storytelling but a deliberate means to show Katharine, hurling insults at the screen, as an armchair activist, casting her eventual act, no matter how colossal it might be, in the light of someone so opposed to the war and so desperate to do something that she heedlessly pushes forward. Such imprudence is glimpsed in the unsteadiness with which she sneaks out a copy of the memo and drops it in the mail, scenes where Hood lays the tension on with a traditional thickness inadvertently inching close to parody. In other places he calls to attention to genre staples without honoring them, like a parking garage scene, where even if Observer reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith), who writes up Katharine’s story, makes the obligatory Deep Throat reference, the atmospheric tension of “All the President’s Men” is lacking. Hood only elevates such hush-hush material in a tête-à-tête between Emmerson the politician (Jeremy Northam), overseeing Katharine’s prosecution, which happens on a beach overlooking their vacation homes, a quietly savage evocation of national policy as conducted by the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Otherwise, Hood proceeds with maximum efficiency, not interested in and mostly skipping right over the year Katharine spent in limbo wondering whether she would be charged for a crime, signaling a preference for narrative over character, though “Official Secrets” refrains from getting lost in the weeds John le Carré style, crisply connecting the dots to bring facts and truth up in the mix, giving the message more weight than the process, especially where journalism is concerned, aside from one moment of spellcheck gone wrong that manages to concisely, even comically, convey both the essential tediousness of the job while shaking its head at bloggy conspiracy mongers run amok whose only fact-checking is their registered political party. And though the newsroom is populated by potentially fascinating characters, no one here stands out, crystallized in the rote brown liquor that war correspondent Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans) favors; swashbuckling reporters like to drink! And nothing against Conleth Hill as the Observer editor, honestly, but like so many newspaper editors in so many movies, he merely shines a stark spotlight on just how impeccably Jason Robards carved an editor out of thin air in “All the President’s Men.”

Fiennes manages something closer to the Robards trick, emitting equal compassion and frankness and embodying a natural state where you can virtually see him thinking things through, even as he’s speaking, allowing his character to match the idea of Katharine as someone figuring this out as she goes. He gets the movie’s final moment, in fact, which I won’t specifically reveal, though both in Fiennes’s curtness and the way Hood cuts to a shot from the rear, splitting two characters right down the middle, it forcefully rejects the truism of reaching across the aisle.

If Knightley, meanwhile, never seems certain how to play the relationship with her refugee husband (Adam Bakri), whether she is supposed to be falling in love with him as the plot progresses or if she already truly was, she nevertheless creates a convincing portrait of someone coming into her own despite plunging herself into extraordinary circumstances. If others accuse Katharine of being naïve, Knightley plays straight to that in early scenes, as impetuous as indignant, and Knightley eases into her character’s heroism, gradually replacing her patented tremulousness, born of Katharine realizing what she has done, with rock-solid posture echoing off the precise incantation of her lips so that you can literally see where the impetuousness has transformed into steeliness. And a closing tracking shot following Katharine through the bowels of court brings that transformation to life, ending with her standing alone, punctuating the notion that when it comes to effecting change all it takes is one.

No comments: