Keira Knightley’s edginess while playing a real-life Iraq War whistle-blower in the political thriller ‘Official Secrets’ wasn’t all an act. The decision to sleep train her three-year-old daughter during filming meant she wasn’t faking it when it came to the emotional side of the role.
“I felt very on edge, but for different reasons. So I used it all,” Knightley joked during a recent interview.
It’s not a method she’d recommend to her fellow thespians.
“Any actresses out there, do not move the child from the cot to the bed when you’re just about to play a lead role in a film that has a lot of words in it because remembering them is quite tricky,” Knightley said.
The actress had a lot of important lines playing Katharine Gun, a translator at the British government’s communications headquarters in the early 2000s. While there, Gun leaked a confidential United States National Security Agency email exposing illegal activities to a British newspaper.
The memo proved that the UK and US governments were in collusion over spying on countries that were wavering in their support for the war. After the information hit the front pages of newspapers, Gun confessed and was subsequently arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act.
Knightley admits that despite being a politically engaged 18-year-old at the time of the Iraq War, she had no memory of Gun’s extraordinary story.
“I was sort of fascinated that either I’d forgotten, or I’d never known about Katharine Gun and I’d never known about this memo. So I felt like, you know, just as far as kind of a historical piece in sort of shedding light on that, the lead up to that conflict, I thought it was a very important story to tell.”
The film traces Gun’s arrest and landmark criminal trial and Knightley said she was most concerned with accurately depicting Gun’s actions.
“When you meet Katharine, her point of view is absolutely clear and you know my job in this was telling this story from her point of view completely,” Knightley said.
This was an immense challenge: Gun still can’t speak freely about what happened.
“It was the first time I’ve ever met somebody, and I was asking questions and I thought, ‘Oh they actually legally cannot answer the question,’ because of course she is still bound by the Official Secrets Act. So I can’t say that you know I got anything that isn’t in the public domain but she is a fascinating, extraordinary woman.”
The film’s supporting cast includes Matt Smith as newspaper journalist Martin Bright, Matthew Goode as fellow journalist Peter Beaumont and Ralph Fiennes as defence lawyer Ben Emmerson.
The film that almost wasn’t
Gun and Martin Bright could be forgiven for fielding Hollywood’s overtures with a degree of scepticism.
Ever since their story was documented in Marcia and Thomas Mitchell’s 2008 book ‘The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War’, Gun, the British whistle-blower who attempted to prevent the Iraq War, and Bright, an investigative journalist who broke the leak, had sat down with many a filmmaker interested in translating their tale.
One by one, each iteration fell by the wayside. So when veteran South African director Gavin Hood (‘Tsotsi’, ‘Ender’s Game’) expressed interest, Gun and Bright took the development with a grain of salt.
“We’d been through many ups and downs with the project,” Bright says. “We were slightly suspicious that this was yet another person promising to tell our story.”
When Gun met with Hood, however, she was struck by his engagement. They ended up talking for five hours, pledging to pick up where they left off the next day. And again the day after.
“He was taking handwritten notes in this vast, leather-bound notebook of his that just grew and grew and grew,” Gun says of those meetings, which went on for five days. “I could tell it was something that he took seriously.”
Directed and co-written by Hood, ‘Official Secrets’ generates tension by dramatising real-life events. But the methodical espionage thriller avoids taking substantial liberties with the true story.
While a previous version of the script consolidated two of Bright’s key colleagues at The Observer newspaper into one composite character, Hood’s film honours their contributions by restoring Peter Beaumont and Ed Vulliamy as individual characters (played by Matthew Goode and Rhys Ifans, respectively).
“I thought the credibility of the movie would suffer if I took license with significant people and events,” Hood says. “It’s not like we’re doing something from 500 years ago. These people are alive, and they’ll say, ‘Not so.’ “
Loyalty to the actual events also meant embracing an unconventional plot. The storyline involving Bright and his journalistic cohorts, for example, takes a back seat in the final act. At that point, the narrative shifts to the defence crafted by Gun’s lawyer, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), after she is charged with breaking Britain’s Official Secrets Act.
“It doesn’t fit a traditional structure,” Hood says, “but I hope I’ll be forgiven for that because that is true to what happened.”
“Official Secrets” probes myriad issues that remain resonant a decade and a half later, including government overreach and accountability, the toxicity of anti-Muslim sentiment, and the merits of an intrepid free press.
But Gun’s personal story proves to be the prism through which the film investigates such sprawling topics. When Bright saw the movie for the first time, he was struck by how Gun was the figure on screen he most identified with. (“And I’m a character in the film!” he says.) By positioning Gun as an everywoman, ‘Official Secrets’ asks its audience to ponder the moral dilemma at its core.
“I didn’t set out to be a whistle-blower,” Gun says. “Hopefully people will see it and come away with the thought, ‘What would I do if I was in a similar situation?’”
Don’t miss it!
‘Official Secrets’ releases in the UAE on September 12.