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Tuesday, December 17, 2019


(Keira Knightley)

Keira Knightley leads an excellent cast in this tense, whistleblower thriller set in England in 2003 during the build-up to the second Iraq war. (8/10 Review by Patrick Compton)

South Africa’s most prominent movie export – outside of Charlize Theron – is writer-director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) who impresses once again with this true-to-life thriller about a whistleblower at Britain’s GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), outside Cheltenham, as the drums begin beating for war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) is a quietly-spoken worker at the surveillance unit, a Mandarin translator whose work involves dealing with a steady flow of radio intercepts. One day she is one of about a 100 fellow workers to receive a memo from GCHQ’s American cousin, the NSA, asking for scraps of information, personal or otherwise, about UN delegates from “swing” countries, that could be used to secure UN backing for a hoped-for invasion.

In other words, she is expected to acquiesce in a request for information that could be used to blackmail or bully reluctant countries into supporting the war. This is not what she has signed on for and Gun is suitably outraged. As she later dramatically points out under interrogation, she is not working for the British Government but the British people, and she is not in the business of gathering information so that the government can lie to them.

What to do? Knowing full well that publicising this memo risks prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, Gun agonises before making a fateful decision ...

Hood has made a lean, understated, suspenseful thriller that includes a vitally strong central performance from Knightley as the initially reluctant Gun who is not a politically active person and, to make matters more complicated, is married to a Kurd whose naturalisation credentials are under scrutiny.

The film focuses, firstly, on Gun, the choices available to her and the consequences she fears. Secondly, we are given an insight into the British media industry’s involvement in the rush to war. We learn that the memo, through a sequence of dramatic events, eventually lands up in the hands of Observer journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith, the Duke of Edinburgh in The Crown) who liaises with fellow scribes Ed Vulliamy (flamboyantly played by Rhys Ifans) and Peter Baumant (Matthew Goode) as the newspaper (which supports the war) debates whether to publish. Finally, we follow Gun’s legal battle partly through the eyes of her lawyer, Ben Emmerson QC, effectively played by Ralph Fiennes.

The point of the film is clear to see, of course, and South Africans will be put in mind of all the leaks they have received from courageous whistleblowers who have revealed the corrupt ways of the Zuma government and their Gupta enablers, a series of events that is surely worth a film of its own.

Gun, who would surely have remained a murky, barely-known character in the story of the disastrous Iraq war without the publicity of this movie, receives what many would consider the ultimate of accolades from the famed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who described her leak as the “most important and courageous I have ever seen. No-one has ever done what Katharine Gun did: tell secret truths at personal risk before an imminent war, in time, possibly, to avert it.”

The irony, of course, is that Gun’s actions did not prevent the invasion, because George W Bush and his British poodle, Tony Blair, were determined to prosecute the war, regardless of whether it was illegal, unnecessary, or immoral.

Knightley’s powerful and sensitive performance as an ordinary person faced with extraordinary choices ensures that what could have been a dry political film, however pertinent, receives the kind of human face and personality that compels the emotional identification of audiences.

Official Secrets, which opened on December 13, 2019, is showing at Gateway. – Patrick Compton