Official Secrets Cert: 15, 1hr 52mins
Right now, there is a reasonably widely held view that the current occupant of the White House is no great friend of the truth, and there are those too who, rightly or wrongly, say much the same about the current occupant of 10 Downing Street.
Official Secrets is a film that provides a powerful reminder that there is nothing new about either of these wretchedly miserable situations.
Set in the run-up to the war in Iraq in 2003 and based on a true but easily forgotten story, it’s a film that won’t be for everyone. If you’re convinced that the case for war was soundly based and that the decision to topple Saddam Hussein was a good one… well, I’d definitely go and see something else this week.
At its heart is the extraordinary story of Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), a young translator who, back in early 2003, was engaged in top-secret monitoring work at GCHQ in Cheltenham
Similarly, I don’t think Tony Blair, former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith or Ken Macdonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, will be in much of a rush to see it either.
But for the rest of us it’s a film that, despite focusing on the recent past, says so much about what’s going on today that it becomes almost unmissable. At this precise moment in time, seeing power held so vividly to account has a real resonance.
At its heart is the extraordinary story of Katharine Gun, a young translator who, back in early 2003, was engaged in top-secret monitoring work at GCHQ in Cheltenham. One morning, a strangely worded email arrived in her inbox, essentially a request from the American intelligence agencies for their British counterparts to spy aggressively on five members of the United Nations Security Council.
Gun wrestles with her conscience – should she secretly copy the email, leak it to the press and perhaps prevent a war? (Above centre, Matt Smith as journalist Martin Bright)
The hope was that enough embarrassing information could be unearthed for some of these council members to be effectively blackmailed into supporting the controversial UN resolution that would give the decision to invade Iraq vital legal validity.
Directed by Gavin Hood, who made the Oscar-winning South African film Tsotsi, and based on a book by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, Official Secrets gains in power the longer it goes on.
At first there’s a certain reluctance on our part to be plunged back into the painful history of sexed-up dossiers, WMDs and attacks that could be allegedly launched in 45 minutes.
Actors playing journalists is always difficult for other journalists to comment on but, for my money, Smith, Matthew Goode (above) and an exuberant Rhys Ifans all do a fine job
It doesn’t help that the vital email is phrased in intelligence jargon so obscure that two of the characters have to explain it to each other so that the audience understands what’s going on.
But slowly we get there, untroubled by the sight of Keira Knightley in one of her unshowiest but quietly most convincing roles to date, or by the fact that a film set in Cheltenham, London and Washington DC was shot almost entirely in, er… Yorkshire.
Hood, who has covered similarly morally confused ground in such films as Eye In The Sky and Rendition, builds the tension well, as Gun wrestles with her conscience – should she secretly copy the email, leak it to the press and perhaps prevent a war?
Ralph Fiennes (above) is excellent, too, as the intense and prickly barrister who heroically fights Gun’s corner
Or should she remember that she signed the Official Secrets Act when she joined GCHQ, risks being branded a traitor and could spend decades in prison?
Despite ardent opposition from her Kurdish-Turk husband – who already has to sign in at his local police station while his residency application proceeds – she risks everything and goes ahead. The whistle has been blown.
From here on, Official Secrets becomes the most gripping of rollercoasters, as Gun’s email tortuously finds its way to a Sunday newspaper (which, until then, had been in favour of the war) where reporters – having no idea of its origins – struggle to determine whether it is real or fake.
IT’S A FACT
Katherine Gun’s Turkish husband was deported from the UK. She now lives in Turkey with him and their daughter.
Actors playing journalists is always difficult for other journalists to comment on but, for my money, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and an exuberant Rhys Ifans all do a fine job.
Ralph Fiennes is excellent, too, as the intense and prickly barrister who heroically fights Gun’s corner.
These days, Gun is an almost forgotten figure, and it’s only towards the end that we discover the murky reasons why. Hers is a story without the traditional Hollywood ending, which means the film is similarly lacking one too.
But it’s a sign of its impact and Hood’s structural success that in a film that some will no doubt dismiss as liberal, Leftie bleating, there is no sense of anticlimax at all. An important story has been powerfully retold, and retold exceptionally well.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil (PG)
Traditional fairy tales have always had a dark side, an aspect that Disney has mostly ignored. But all that changed five years ago with Maleficent – the film that introduced us to Angelina Jolie as the dark, cheekbone-enhanced fairy of the title – and it changes again with this sequel.
I mean, a congregation of fairy folk locked in a church as poison gas pours in? Isn’t that going a little too far?
Traditional fairy tales have always had a dark side, and Disney acknowledged this in Maleficent – the film that introduced us to Angelina Jolie as the dark, cheekbone-enhanced fairy
They do just about get away with it, thanks to the film’s stunning visual effects, a strong storyline and a trio of powerful performances from Jolie, Michelle Pfeiffer as a scheming queen and Elle Fanning as feisty Princess Aurora.
Pushing what’s acceptable, particularly in a PG film, to the limit, this is a strong sequel, but definitely not for the very young.
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Shaun and the rest of his sheepy gang have a close encounter with a small blue, pizza-loving alien who turns out to be a very long way from home
There are some nice visual gags along the familiar stop-motion way, and accompanying adults will enjoy spotting the classic sci-fi film references, but there’s still a frustrating sense of anticlimax.
Zombieland: Double Tap (15)
If you really loved the 2009 original, by all means add another star to the above rating, while the rest of us ponder why on earth Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin reunited for this little-awaited sequel?
It can’t be the underwritten script. It can’t be the patchy humour. So it must be the body count, which is enormous, or the knowledge that Bill Murray will pop up in the end credits to send us home with a (weak) smile on our faces.
The Peanut Butter Falcon (12A)
This begins as a gritty drama with unlicensed fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) being chased out of the Carolina swamps just as Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a Down’s syndrome adult, escapes from the old people’s home in which he’s been placed.
But it becomes something more sentimental and watchable as the two mismatched men unexpectedly hit it off. Slightly overcooked but very sweet.