Review: Official Secrets (Sundance)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

PLOT: In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), a British secret service officer, leaks an NSA memo exposing an illegal U.S-U.K spying operation designed to push member states of the UN Security Council into voting for war.

REVIEW: OFFICIALS SECRETS continues the bold reinvention of director Gavin Hood’s career. Formerly best known for X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and ENDER’S GAME, EYE IN THE SKY was a promising new start, with him making a compelling, politically minded thriller that got rave reviews and did fairly well at the box office. OFFICIAL SECRETS is very much in the same vein, although without the thriller hook EYE IN THE SKY had, whether or not it’ll make a major impact remains to be seen.

In any other year, I think people would be coming out of Sundance buzzing about OFFICIAL SECRETS a lot more, given that it’s a smart, effective retelling of an important episode in global politics. To its detriment though, it happened to play immediately in the wake of THE REPORT, which Amazon picked up in a splashy deal and seems primed for awards contention. Given how low-key the resulting buzz has been around this similarly star-studded thriller, I wonder if two political dramas were one too many.

Whatever the case, OFFICIAL SECRETS is a well-made docudrama, telling the Katharine Gun story in a simple, straight-forward way. The biggest surprise is that rather than make it a Keira Knightley star vehicle, equal importance has been given to both the media that ultimately published the memo and finally the legal team that took on Gun’s defense.

It’s telling that the part of the film focusing on Gun is the least compelling, as after she leaks the memo if feels like, to a degree, her role is over. Some time is spent on the fallout on her marriage (with her being married to a Muslin immigrant trying to get permanent status) and career, but you never really get insight into her mental state. You empathize with her, but truth be told you never really understand her motivations in leaking the memo, with it seeming like a pretty easy choice for her to make when I’m sure it wasn’t. I’m not sure who the culprit is here, but Knightley is good in a part that seems a bit thinly conceived, while Hood’s energy and focus seem to be on the more peripheral players.

At times, the film really belongs to Matt Smith, as the English reporter who has to go against his editorial staff to push for the memo’s publication, and the various hoops he has to jump through. Matthew Goode and Rhys Ifans play the reporters supporting him, while “Game of Thrones”’s Varys, Conleth Hill, shows up with (some) hair in a juicy part as Smith’s hawkish but ultimately supportive editor.

Later, the focus shifts to Ralph Fiennes as Gun’s attorney, in which he gives an admirably, low-key, empathetic turn, but the fact that Hood ends the film on a contemplative shot of his character is telling in showing where the focus lies. In that regard, it’s frustrating that it’s kind of Gunn’s story, but also kind of not, and this lack of razor-sharp focus is what places it a few notches below THE REPORT.

Even still, OFFICIALS SECRETS is nothing if not compelling, making it an easy recommendation for those who enjoy true-to-life drama. If THE REPORT is a home-run, this is a double.

Review: Official Secrets (Sundance)




About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.