Cons and Confidentiality
The world being in the state that it is, the temptation to sink into a state of stupefied despair is pretty much ever-present at the moment. One of the reasons I love the cinema is that it does provide the chance to escape into a different kind of headspace, a different way of thinking, and forget about the dismal facts of reality. Oddly enough, this still seems to apply even when the film in question brings one face-to-face with some dolorous truths from the recent past – at least, it does when the film is well-written, directed and played.
Gavin Hood's Official Secrets is set in the early 2000s, in a Britain where huge demonstrations fill the streets, only to be entirely disregarded by the government in power, where a smirking excrescence with no regard for the truth is Prime Minister, and where a comparatively lowly whistle-blower has the ability to inflict severe embarrassment on the US administration. How very different things were only a few years ago. The whistle-blower in question is Katherine Gun (Keira Knightley), a translator at GCHQ, the government's intelligence and communications hub. A keen follower of current affairs, Gun is appalled and outraged by what she sees as the lies peddled by Tony Blair in his attempts to win support for an invasion of Iraq.
Then she receives an email, sent to all GCHQ personnel from somewhere within the American NSA – in an attempt to swing a United Nations Security Council vote, an effort is being made to acquire sensitive intelligence on council members in an attempt to acquire leverage – or, to put it more plainly, they are digging dirt on allies in order to blackmail them into supporting the invasion. (Should I stress that this is a true story?) After struggling with her conscience, Gun eventually decides to leak the top-secret email.
It ends up on the desk of Observer journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), who quickly realises just exactly what he's come into possession of. The situation is complex, however – he doesn't know the source of the document, and has no way of being certain it is genuine. There is also the fact that, prior to this moment, his paper has been in favour of the war. Can the leak be verified? Can the editors be persuaded of the value of the story? And what will the consequences be for Gun if they do decide to publish?
I've seen all of Gavin Hood's recent films – from Wolverine: Origins onwards – and it does seem like his dalliance with superheroes was rather uncharacteristic: he generally seems to make serious films about significant real-world issues. All right, he did make the (possibly under-rated) YA sci-fi film Ender's Game, which got tangled up in political issues of a different kind, but even there the film quietly explored the issue of using child soldiers (through an SF metaphor, of course). His last film, Eye in the Sky, was a very powerful thriller about the ethics of drone strikes as an instrument of foreign policy.
And, needless to say, Official Secrets is also concerned with international relations, the difference here being that the film is based on actual events. You might think the film already has two strikes against it as a result – firstly, does the world really want to see another film complaining about a war which is now a matter of historical record? And, secondly, the film doesn't shy away from the fact that Gun and the Observer journalists ultimately failed in their objective, which was to stop an arguably illegal war. Wouldn't it just be better to accept things and move on?
Well, maybe, but the film has a couple of powerful things in its favour. Firstly, it deals with what are still arguably very live issues: the opaque nature of dealings within and between governments, the issue of trust, the extent to which a government is constrained by the rule of law, and so on. For a long time I was always slightly dubious about many high-profile whistle-blowing cases – there is a case to be made that governments have a responsibility to keep certain information from become general knowledge, which means there has to be a mechanism to ensure secrecy. But the film questions just what the limits of this can and should be – the British Official Secrets Act apparently operates on the principle that there are no circumstances in which the release of sensitive information can be justified, regardless of the legality of what is disclosed. From here it is just a short step to the assumption that the government is necessarily right in whatever it does, simply because it's the government (one of the notions toyed with in Vice, earlier this year). It is surely worth exploring the consequences of this, even if only through a film.
And this is a very well-made and entertaining film: it may tackle some legal and political chewy bits, but it does so with the pace and excitement of a proper thriller, particular in the sequences where Bright and his colleagues try to verify the truth of the leak. Nor is it entirely sombre: there's a great moment of black comedy when overzealous use of spellchecker threatens to discredit the Observer's big scoop. There is a great ensemble performance from the actors playing the journalists – Matt Smith's performance does a good job of reminding you what a charismatic actor he can be, but he is well-supported by Matthew Goode and (in what's basically a cameo) Rhys Ifans. The film's other major supporting performance comes from Ralph Fiennes as Gun's lawyer, Ben Emmerson, and he likewise makes the most of a strong script. (Most of the characters in this film are real people, but – perhaps fortunately – none of them are especially familiar faces. The only possible exception is Shami Chakrabarti, who appears in the film played by Indira Varma, but as a relatively minor figure.)
This is, of course, a Keira Knightley film – it's her face which is most prominent on that poster, after all. I think it is fair to say she is one of those performers I have never entirely warmed to, possibly because she seems to specialise in a certain type of tastefully inert costume drama, possibly to the extent where she seems vaguely out of place appearing in anything else (I can't recall Knightley's Kiwi accent from Everest without having an involuntary tremor). Here she is, well, good enough to carry most of the movie, although I think it is very possible she is slightly overcooking her performance. There are a lot of tics I seem to recall from other performances, anyway. But, as I say, good enough.
This is a film which may be hampered by a slightly boring title, the sense it is raking over yesterday's issues, and the fact that it has a poster which is largely interchangeable with that of most other Keira Knightley movies. However, this doesn't stop it being an intelligent, involving, and very well-made film that manages to deal with serious issues without becoming heavy or slow. Certainly one of the better films of recent months; it gets my recommendation.
Also This Week...
...Zombieland: Double Tap, sequel to the 2009 comedy-horror sleeper hit. Ten years is a long gap between films, and one which causes this one a few problems, mainly because one of the stars has gone from being 13 to 23 and this has to be acknowledged somehow. However, the general tone of the film is so silly and knowing it can hand-wave this (and much else) away without significant difficulty. An indeterminate number of years on from the zombie apocalypse that ended civilisation, domestic tensions have appeared within our small group of survivors, leading to one of them leaving the rest. Naturally they resolve to get her back. Time for a road trip, with yet more zombies along the way!
Starts creakily but then warms up; accomplished comic performances from the cast help. Woody Harrelson's rendition of 'Hunka Hunka Burning Love', which he treats the audience to over the closing credits, kind of replicates the film in miniature: it's enthusiastic, not outright awful, and reasonably entertaining – but it is a bit odd and you do wonder what the point of it is.
...Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon. Aahhh, finally the chance to just relax and bask in the unadulterated, joyful brilliance of another Aardman animation, in this case a sequel to 2015's wonderful Shaun the Sheep: the Movie. Strange phenomena at Mossy Bottom Farm herald first contact between alien life and, um, sheepkind, as Shaun the Sheep meets Lu-La, an excitable alien stranded on Earth. Can he and the other farm animals get her home before sinister government forces close in?
Not quite the utterly perfect gem that the first one was, but still made with breathtaking skill and attention to detail, coupled to a very solid script filled with good jokes. The animation is so good in these films that the makers don't get enough credit for being able to sustain a full-length narrative without a single word of dialogue, and still make it funny and poignant in all the right places. This film scores extra bonus points for being filled with in-jokes about Kubrick, Spielberg, and many other pieces of classic science fiction, some of them rather obscure (h2g2 members will particularly enjoy the supermarket that Shaun and Lu-La visit halfway through). Another unreserved recommendation.
...another three-and-a-half hours of Mariano Llinas' La Flor; we are now about half-way through this extraordinary monument to folie de grandeur. Even so, the third segment of the film can't be contained to a single screening: it's a five-and-a-half hour long existential spy thriller about two teams of female spies hunting each other across a bleak landscape, vastly expanded by the use of flashbacks and digressions. After a while you go into a sort of trance state from which you are roused only by the realisation that the film is either doing something really good (some of the side stories are genuinely accomplished) or utterly bizarre (a horse-riding, cigar-smoking version of Margaret Thatcher appears as a character at one point). I'm starting to suspect there's no way of actually understanding the thinking behind La Flor; you either reject the film entirely or yield to it without reservation. Only another six-and-a-half hours to go.