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Defence of the Realm (1985)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Defence of the Realm (1985)
DirectorDavid Drury
Production CompanyEnigma Films
 Rank Film Productions
 National Film Finance Corporation
Executive ProducerDavid Puttnam
ProducerRobin Douet
 Lynda Myles
ScriptMartin Stellman
PhotographyRoger Deakins

Cast: Gabriel Byrne (Nick Mullen); Greta Schacchi (Nina Beckman); Denholm Elliot (Vernon Bayliss); Ian Bannen (Dennis Markham); Fulton MacKay (Victor Kingsbrook); Bill Paterson (Jack Macleod)

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A tabloid journalist investigating a parliamentary sex scandal uncovers a darker story involving a top-level government cover-up.

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In a decade when much British cinema seemed intent on repackaging the past for an international audience, Defence of the Realm (d. David Drury, 1985) was one of relatively few 1980s' films to engage with contemporary political realities in Britain. The film reflects a period of intense Cold War anxiety and growing concern at the stationing of American nuclear weapons in Britain, particularly given a US administration, under Ronald Reagan, which spoke openly of a nuclear 'first strike' and, most alarmingly, of a 'winnable' nuclear war fought on European soil. It also encompasses fears of excessive State secrecy highlighted by the high profile 'Official Secrets' prosecutions of civil servants Clive Ponting and Sarah Tisdall.

With its journalist-as-detective device, the film resembles American conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View (d. Alan J. Pakula, 1974) and Three Days of the Condor (d. Sidney Pollack, 1975). But Defence of the Realm is more closely related to contemporary British TV dramas like Edge of Darkness (BBC, 1985), In the Secret State (BBC, 1985) and the later A Very British Coup (Channel 4, 1988), which identify sinister forces at work at the heart of the British Establishment.

Writer Martin Stellman had shown a similarly contemporary edge in his scripts for Quadrophenia (d. Franc Roddam, 1979) and Babylon (d. Franco Rosso, 1980), and Defence of the Realm is strikingly successful in marrying forceful political comment - targeting Whitehall secrecy, MI5 and the reactionary tabloid press - to a satisfying thriller plot.

The film begins with a Profumo-like sex-and-secrets scandal involving a leftwing opposition MP, Dennis Markham (Ian Bannen). But as cynical tabloid hack Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) is drawn deeper into his investigation, he begins to uncover an altogether more terrifying story involving a near nuclear disaster at an American missile base in the English countryside.

Where Mullen is initially self-serving, unscrupulous and politically uncommitted, his colleague Vernon Bayliss (Denholm Elliot) is an idealist driven to alcoholism by the shattering of his political dreams. It is Bayliss's suspicious death which spurs Mullen on in his journey of discovery, abetted by Markham's personal assistant Nina (Greta Scacchi). It is a sign of Stellman's serious intent that he resists the urge to develop Mullen and Nina's relationship.

Director David Drury maintains an understated tension throughout, helped by sombre and often striking cinematography by Roger Deakins, later favoured by the Coen Brothers.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. 'A bloody reporter' (3:40)
2. Getting to the truth (2:12)
3. Vernon's flat (4:50)
Production stills
Edge of Darkness (1985)
Bannen, Ian (1928-1999)
Byrne, Gabriel (1950-)
Coltrane, Robbie (1950-)
Elliott, Denholm (1922-1992)
Scacchi, Greta (1960-)