Keira Knightley stars as a GCHQ whistleblower but this political thriller is largely devoid of thrills, writes BRIAN VINER
Official Secrets (15)
Verdict: Thriller with no thrills
The Peanut Butter Falcon (12A)
Verdict: Sweet and delicious
Official Secrets tells the story of Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), the GCHQ whistleblower who, in 2003, leaked a potentially explosive email that could have stopped the invasion of Iraq and might have sent her to prison.
The fundamental problem with this film, which it tries but fails to overcome, is that the email didn’t explode (at least, not as it might have done), the invasion wasn’t prevented and she didn’t go to prison.
The leaked memo was splashed on the front page of The Observer newspaper and caused a flurry of outrage, which quite quickly died down.
I’m not Keira Knightley's greatest fan, and can’t think of a single character she’s played that several of her contemporaries (Carey Mulligan or Emma Stone, for example) couldn’t have played better. But she’s perfectly fine here, within that limited KK repertoire of giggles and frowns
Katharine admitted breaking the Official Secrets Act, and her case was taken up by human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), who intended to defend her on the basis that she was trying to stop something illegal.
But (spoiler alert) the trial didn’t happen, either. So what we are left with is a political thriller largely devoid of thrills.
It is also a film, like many before it, in which good reporters work feverishly to break a story, stamping angrily around the newsroom, gathering conspiratorially in the editor’s office, insouciantly putting their feet up on desks, intrepidly meeting contacts in underground car parks, swearing a lot and generally making journalism look like the most exciting job in the world.
I’m all for that — the Press gets rather a bad press these days, so it’s always pleasing to see journalists presented in the movies as energetic, moral crusaders, portrayed by handsome matinee idols (well, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans and Matthew Goode).
But what’s the point of all that furious profanity, all those feet on desks, if nothing changes?
In All The President’s Men (1976) we saw The Washington Post exposing Watergate, which compelled Richard Nixon to resign.
The fundamental problem with this film, which it tries but fails to overcome, is that the email didn’t explode (at least, not as it might have done), the invasion wasn’t prevented and she didn’t go to prison
Forty years later, Spotlight told us how The Boston Globe drew global attention to endemic sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
You can almost hear director Gavin Hood, whose 2015 thriller Eye In The Sky was properly gripping, straining to make the same kind of movie.
Unfortunately, and ironically, Official Secrets is fatally undermined by the truth. It is not, at least, undermined by Keira Knightley.
I’m not her greatest fan, and can’t think of a single character she’s played that several of her contemporaries (Carey Mulligan or Emma Stone, for example) couldn’t have played better.
But she’s perfectly fine here, within that limited KK repertoire of giggles and frowns.
Katharine is married to a Turk (Adam Bakri), whose application for UK residency offers another opportunity for Hood (and his co‑writers, husband-and-wife team Gregory and Sara Bernstein) to generate the odd twitch of excitement, which they seize with enthusiasm, even though that storyline, too, leads them nowhere very interesting.
The film makes GCHQ look a bit like The Observer newsroom, with lots of urgency — ‘Andy, where’s my Pyongyang report!?’ — although without the angry swearing. It’s hushed, as well as hush-hush.
It’s always pleasing to see journalists presented in the movies as energetic, moral crusaders, portrayed by handsome matinee idols (well, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans and Matthew Goode). But what’s the point of all that furious profanity, all those feet on desks, if nothing changes?
When Katharine gets an email from a Frank Koza at the U.S. National Security Agency, inviting her to spy on foreign diplomats so that they might be blackmailed into supporting a UN resolution calling for an invasion of Iraq, she is quietly ablaze with righteous indignation.
We already know she’s fiercely against the prospect of war, because we’ve seen her shouting at Tony Blair on the telly.
So she prints out the email and later pops it into a letterbox, two fleeting episodes that Hood does his best to make unbearably tense, though I don’t think anyone’s fingernails will be in danger.
Really, Official Secrets is the story of a woman’s conscience, some journalistic tenacity, a few legal shenanigans and very little more.
The email ends up in the hands of dogged reporter Martin Bright (Smith), whose colleagues, Peter Beaumont (Goode) and Ed Vulliamy (Ifans, treating us to one of his untamed maverick turns), try to verify it as genuine, needing the endorsement of sceptical editor Roger Alton (Conleth Hill).
As it happens, Alton is now an esteemed colleague of mine at the Mail. I had coffee with him this week to see if he remembers events as the film presents them.
He doesn’t quite. And, in fact, when he sees it, he might be tempted to do a spot of Keira-style yelling at the screen himself.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with dramatic licence. This picture could do with more of it, but I suppose that would mean rewriting history. If only.
The Peanut Butter Falcon, by contrast, is a lovely slab of make-believe, with a Down’s Syndrome actor, Zack Gottsagen, playing Zak, a kind of disabled modern version of Huckleberry Finn. The film’s quirky title is his nickname as a would-be wrestler.
After he runs away from his North Carolina care home, Zak ends up under the broken wing of Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who is grieving for his dead older brother and is himself on the run from angry fishermen whose crabbing pots he has destroyed.
Together, with Zak’s fragrant carer (Dakota Johnson) in hot pursuit, the pair set off by boat and then raft to find the wrestling school run by the Salt Water Redneck, Zak’s hero.
Written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, it’s a film of terrific charm, only slightly marred by a rushed ending that oddly tosses away all the plausibility in which we have cheerfully invested for the previous 95 minutes.
Still, highly recommended.
How baaarmy! Shaun the Sheep’s adventures with a purple-nosed alien are out of this world
A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (U)
Verdict: A giant step for lambkind
Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil (PG)
Verdict: Less than magical
Those clever people at the Aardman factory in Bristol haven’t been idle in the four years since the first Shaun The Sheep movie, which was 85 minutes of pure cinematic joy.
It has taken all that time for them to craft Farmageddon — and no wonder.
Most of us know that stop-motion animation is a painstaking business, but it’s always worth being reminded of the numbers: four seconds of action takes a week to produce. That’s progress Brexit-style.
But apologies for mentioning the B-word because, if ever there was a film to distract us from the political brouhaha, here it is.
Farmageddon is not quite on a par with the 2015 film. The belly-laughs aren’t as plentiful and it’s not as guilelessly joyful, even a little over-elaborate in parts. Which makes it a notch below comedy genius, yet still a must-see
On Mossy Bottom Farm, Shaun and his friends have ordered pizzas.
Meanwhile, a spaceship has landed nearby and, when its sole occupant — blue, with pink ears, a purple nose and a rare talent for mimicry — stows away on a pizza-delivery bike . . . well, I’d say you can guess the rest, but I bet you can’t.
Government spooks from the Ministry of Alien Detection (which has an entirely apt acronym) are determined to prove the existence of extra-terrestrials — just like Tommy Lee Jones in the recent Ad Astra, come to think of it.
But Shaun is determined to keep his playful new friend out of their clutches and help her rejoin her family on their distant planet.
The farmer is similarly determined to cash in on public hysteria by turning his land into a theme park.
All this cues up some glorious slapstick and wry sight gags, with lovely references to Doctor Who (the Tardis is presented as a Portaloo) and even Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Most of us know that stop-motion animation is a painstaking business, but it’s always worth being reminded of the numbers: four seconds of action takes a week to produce. That’s progress Brexit-style
As silent comedies go, it’s not hyperbole to compare Aardman’s work with the best of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. In fact, there’s a sequence here that reminded me strongly of Chaplin’s Modern Times.
However, Farmageddon is not quite on a par with the 2015 film. The belly-laughs aren’t as plentiful and it’s not as guilelessly joyful, even a little over-elaborate in parts. Which makes it a notch below comedy genius, yet still a must-see.
I would be more circumspect about Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil, especially if you’re taking children.
It could easily scare the living daylights out of them, because Disney has bewilderingly made this less of a Sleeping Beauty spin-off and more of a Lord Of The Rings knock-off.
A sequel to 2014’s Maleficent, which was a blockbuster hit, it gets into a narrative mess developing the idea that, as vamped up by Angelina Jolie, the title character only appears to be the incarnation of evil.
But she is actually a bit of a softie beneath those alarming cheekbones. The real villainess here is Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose son, Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson), has proposed to Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning).
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Warwick Davis help to nudge the convoluted plot along, and Norwegian director Joachim Ronning certainly choreographs some impressive battle scenes, so there is plenty of class on show.
But, if it’s too scary for kids, then — as I kept scribbling in my notes — who is this primarily for?
Disney’s accountants, probably.
It could easily scare the living daylights out of them, because Disney has bewilderingly made this less of a Sleeping Beauty spin-off and more of a Lord Of The Rings knock-off
Back from the dead with gags and gore
Zombieland: Double Tap (15)
Verdict: Tasty zom-com sequel
The 2009 movie Zombieland was a sizeable hit and, even though it’s taken fully ten years to unveil, this sequel should delight fans of the original . . . and maybe a few million more besides.
For those of us who don’t really get our kicks from flesh-eating comedies, and don’t especially venerate the first film, watching this one feels like being excluded from a whole barrage of in-jokes.
As before, the director is Ruben Fleischer (I can at least revel in the fact that fleisch is the German word for ‘flesh’), and the screenwriters are Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, whose post- Zombieland credits include Marvel’s two Deadpool films
It’s slickly done and, in Zoey Deutch — an addition to the original core cast of Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin — the film has a shameless scene-stealer.
She plays Madison, who, in less enlightened times, would have been called a dumb blonde.
For those of us who don’t really get our kicks from flesh-eating comedies, and don’t especially venerate the first film, watching this one feels like being excluded from a whole barrage of in-jokes
With America now devastated by a zombie apocalypse, our motley survivors first get to hole up at what’s left of the White House and then at Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland, where they encounter Nevada (Rosario Dawson).
She is as resourceful as Madison is thick, and sexy with it. The trigger- happy Tallahassee (Harrelson) is duly smitten.
There are lots of pop culture gags of fluctuating success, with nods to The Simpsons, Stephen Hawking and Miami Vice, as well as Elvis, and the movie breezes along with undoubted energy towards its climax at a kind of skyscraper commune called Babylon, on which an army of zombies is marching.
If you remember the original, by the way, you’ll recall that Bill Murray played himself.
He’s not (much) in this one, mostly because he snuffed it the first time around, but perhaps also because he stars in Jim Jarmusch’s recent, disappointing The Dead Don’t Die.
A second ‘zom-com’ in only six months might have felt like overkill, even more to him than it does to me.