Dir: Tom Harper. UK. 2014. 95mins
A gripping and rather astute drama, new British film War Book is a beautifully cast movie that blends political thrills with a clash of personalities. It is ultimately a tense and worrying “what if…” story that could leave its audiences with sleepless nights but also appreciating this striking story.
The performances and subtle character development are all impressively handled, while director Tom Harper does a fine job in making the most of the limited interior location he has to use.
The film, which premiered at the London Film Festival, is the sort of thoughtful and emotive drama that might once have been seen as a piece of high-brow television, while its one-room structure also lends itself to the stage, but director Tom Harper and screenwriter Jack Thorne achieve the rare feat of making a constricted structure seem crackling with thoughts, ideas, passion and provocative information. To a certain it is a tough sell – just in terms of laying the concept down on paper – but is also a striking piece of cinema that cries out to be seen and mulled over.
War Book takes place over three days in a bland governmental office as nine people – a mixture of civil servants, a minister and a senior advisor – gather to take part in a regularly staged policy shaping scenario. Their job is to represent various UK government departments along with the Prime Minister and game-play what Britain’s response would be to the threat of an international nuclear attack.
The scenario is that Pakistan launches a nuclear attack on India, with the room’s participants having to decide what the UK’s course of action – both internationally and internally – would be as the situation escalates and the country drawn into tough decisions. But the subtext of the film – hinted at but never really dwelt on – is that two of the nine know a darker truth – that the country could be on the verge of a very real (but never explained) crisis.
The debate, which starts genially and in a certain good humour, is chaired by civil servant Philippa (the ever excellent Sophie Okonedo), whose job is to ensure tough decisions are made quickly and that the group respond appropriately to the increasingly dangerous fictional scenarios. Amongst the panel are suave government advisor Gary (Ben Chaplin), who takes on the role of the Prime Minister; civil servant Maria (Kerry Fox); Treasury representative David (Anthony Sher) and civil servant Tom (Shaun Evans), whose more liberal attitudes rail against the blunt policy decisions that are discussed.
The story follows how political and personal decisions and opinions collide in one small room as these nine try and work out policy based on a changing scenario that gets increasingly worse. Health care, border control, the banking system, devolved government and – of course – nuclear weaponry are all discussed in a matter-of-fact manner that sees anger, frustration, desperation and remembrance all play their part.
In a period when headlines are dominated by news about ISIS, North Korea, Ebola breakouts, tension in Russia and civil unrest in countries around the world, the story makes for stark viewing. It is a compelling story of how quickly vital decisions have to be made and how soon a country can find itself isolated and having to make the tough decision on whether to press the button or not.
There is a clear political and liberal streak to the film – the fact much debated on screen is that the UK has just 1.4% of the world’s nuclear weapons and therefore can make little impact (either as an aggressor or using weapons as a deterrent) if lines have to be drawn if there is a real war. But while Tom acts as the sensible voice of the everyman who doesn’t want to be drawn into an apocalyptic war, a wonderful speech from David (Anthony Sher is quite compulsive here) details about why and how a nuclear response must be acted upon given certain circumstances.
The performances and subtle character development are all impressively handled, while director Tom Harper does a fine job in making the most of the limited interior location he has to use. It has the feel at times of the classic courtroom drama as a jury decide on a final verdict…except that the decisions these nine come to are even more disturbing and worrying.
Production companies: Sixteen Films, Archer’s Mark
International sales: K5 International, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer: Lauren Dark, Tom Harper
Executive producers: Daniel Baur, Mike Brett, Steve Jamison, Ivana MacKinnon, Oliver Simon
Screenplay: Jack Thorne
Cinematography: Zac Nicholson
Editor: Mark Eckersley
Production designer: Jacqueline Abrahams
Music : Jack C Arnold
Main cast: Sophie Okonedo, Anthony Sher, Ben Chaplin, Kerry Fox, Nicholas Burns, Adeel Akhtar, Shaun Evans, Phoebe Fox, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett