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In ‘Official Secrets,’ Keira Knightley shines as a true-life whistle-blower

Keira Knightley stars as whistle-blower Katharine Gun in “Official Secrets.”
Keira Knightley stars as whistle-blower Katharine Gun in “Official Secrets.” IFC Films

The name Katharine Gun may not sound familiar to most Americans, but Daniel Ellsberg’s certainly does, and Ellsberg turns out to be Gun’s most eloquent advocate.

The man who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 calls Gun’s actions “the most important and courageous leak I have ever seen. No one else — including myself — has ever done what Gun did: Tell secret truths at personal risk, before an imminent war, in time, possibly, to avert it.”

Though the U.S. was involved, Gun’s dramatic story is largely a British one, which is why it’s not well known here. The crackling “Official Secrets,” with Keira Knightley playing Katharine and director Gavin Hood in charge, has the wherewithal to change that dynamic.

Hood, whose last film was the Helen Mirren-starring “Eye in the Sky,” about the ethics of drone strikes, has gotten quite good at the kinds of political thrillers where dates and locations appear at the bottom of the screen.

A model of professionalism and energy, “Official Secrets” moves along at a brisk clip. It’s paced like a police procedural, but it focuses not on an investigator but rather a moral exemplar who takes a principled stand in defiance of the price that has to be paid.

Already twice nominated for an Oscar, Knightley gives one of her strongest performances here, using her innate steeliness and presence to create a convincing portrait of a courageous zealot who believes in right and wrong in an almost biblical sense.

As written by Sara Bernstein and Gregory Bernstein and the director, “Official Secrets” has something of a three-act structure, with a different actor taking the lead in each act.

The film starts on Feb. 24, 2004, with Knightley as Katharine standing in the dock at the Old Bailey being accused of violating the Official Secrets Act and committing treason.

We then flash back a year and encounter Katharine on the one hand living happily with her husband, Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Kurdish Turk who has applied for British citizenship, but also very unhappy at the state of the world.

More specifically, Katharine is upset at the way Prime Minister Tony Blair is misleading the public as he pounds the drum for war with Iraq, screaming “bloody liar” when he appears on her TV screen.

Though you might not guess it, Katharine is herself something of a genteel covert operative (“The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War” is the title of a book about her) who works for the British intelligence agency GCHQ and uses her fluency in Mandarin to listen in on phone conversations.

It is in her capacity as a GCHQ operative that Katharine is copied on a secret email that tells her GCHQ is expected to cooperate with America’s NSA on a covert project to spy on U.N. Security Council members with an eye toward being able to blackmail them into voting yes on invading Iraq.

This seems so deeply wrong to Katharine that the thought of keeping quiet about it almost makes her physically ill. After much agonizing, she makes a copy of the email and gives it to a friend with the understanding that it will make its way to a journalist and see the light of day.

Though Knightley appears throughout the film, the second act shifts focus to journalist Martin Bright, briskly played by Matt Smith, a former Doctor Who who also was Prince Philip in “The Crown.”

Bright works for the Observer, and this section largely deals with the nuts-and-bolts complexities of the process through which the newspaper decides to publish the story.

When it appears as a front-page exclusive, all hell breaks loose and Katharine decides to give herself up to spare her co-workers from becoming involuntary suspects.

This leads to “Official Secrets’” third part, the time leading up to and following her trial, and that is dominated in the best possible sense by Ralph Fiennes, an actor of immense but casual power, as her attorney Ben Emmerson.

A serious attempt apparently was made to be as faithful as possible to the complexities of this case, and that results in involving dialogue on various moral and legal dilemmas. Not business as usual for pulpy thrillers, but Katharine Gun is an unusual woman and her story deserves no less.

‘Official Secrets’

Rated R for language.

Time: 1:52.

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