‘Are you sure you want to watch this one?’ Ray said. ‘I mean, what about a film where we don’t know the outcome?’
I said, ‘But look at the cast list, Keira Knightly, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, Ralph Fiennes, Tamsin Grieg… it’s a who’s who of British talent. Can they all be wrong?’
Ray shrugged, ‘It’s your choice.’
‘We can watch another, if you like. You choose.’
‘No, no,’ he said. ‘Official Secrets it is. I just can’t see how it’s going to be entertaining to watch when we know that it ends with a war. I mean where’s the story?’
‘That’s what I’m curious about,’ I said.
I turned off the light, pulled the curtains on the torrents of summer rain pouring down the window, and Ray hit ‘play’.
A courtroom, paneled in dark wood, with Kenneth Cranham high up on the bench in his wig and gowns, was the grim face of British justice. Keira Knightly walked nervously up from the cells and into the dock to be faced with that eternal question, ‘How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?’
There was a pause. The camera panned closer to her face. What did it say? Which way would she jump? All I could read was apprehension.
Then the opening titles came up.
‘Did she do it, though?’ Ray said.
I couldn’t remember much. I vaguely recalled some of the lead-up to the trial, the headlines and the furore. But there had been so much anger, back then, so much heated debate, everywhere. I’d even witnessed it surging over into classrooms where I’d had to improvise ways to divert it into something creative.
‘We’ll just have to let it all unfold,’ I said, as the story flashbacked to 2003. That’s what we did.
There was nothing lazy about the way the story was delivered. It began with some brief orientation scenes when Ray and I played do-we-recognise-that-location, because these events began not far from our own doorstep.
Soon we were inside one of the most secret buildings in the country. As we number friends and neighbours who do or have worked there, but say nothing about it, this was also fascinating, even if fictional.
Katharine Gun’s dilemma was the first email she opened. We knew that she was going to end up in court, charged with breaking the official secrets act, and yet, the film kept both of us gripped. This was not about action, it looked at motivation, and not just Katharine’s.
Equally fascinating were the discussions about her email release in the newspaper office, and amongst the legal teams. Characters argued with conviction for each side of the debates that led up to the invasion of Iraq by British and American forces, and from a variety of stand-points.
In a way, watching with the knowledge that Katharine’s actions would not achieve their intended actions, added to the tension. It was not the story Ray had dreaded, a predictable rehashing of recent events. There may not have been guns, car crashes or bloody action, but there was drama.
It was personal, and believable. Strengths and weaknesses of arguments and motives were explored. We saw, close up, how actions impacted on relationships.
At the end, I found myself thinking about the way we understand events, and wondering about the kinds of impressions we store in our memories. In retrospect, I could see how important this story had been, yet I’d remembered so little of it. Only as I watched did I realise I’d conflated a couple of similar cases with this one.
No doubt, a contra version of this story could be told. That is, after all, the way history should be written.
It may be that I liked this film so much because I it reflected my own sympathies. What this fiction of true events, this docu-drama, did for me, was to make me think about justice, and how lazily I accept the winning version of where and how it is presented.
Even if there was a clear slant to this version, back then, at the times of the document leak, and the trials, my view of Katharine had almost certainly been tainted by powerful voices on the mirror side of this story.
Official Secrets is a film I want to watch again, soon. In part, for the convincing characters, but also because it was about me. I’ve been left asking the question, ‘how would I respond to a similar test?’