David Drury’s thriller Defence of the Realm is a taut British conspiracy tale set on Fleet Street. This 1986 film embodies the left-wing paranoia of the Thatcher years, with its deep scepticism of nuclear weapons, the US-British alliance, and grey men in dark suits secretly controlling society from their Whitehall back offices and private gentleman’s clubs (It’s of a piece with A Very British Coup and Edge of Darkness in all those respects).
The story begins somewhat obliquely, with two juvenile delinquents fleeing the police until they come to a British airbase used by the American military (Presumably RAF Lakenheath, hint hint). One of them clambers over the fence, triggering an unexplained event that leads to an evacuation. An investigation is announced by Dennis Markham, MP, who is played by Ian Bannen (An actor I praise here, and here and here). But before Markham can pursue his enquiry, he is forced to resign over a Profumo-esque sex scandal. Coincidence? Brash young investigative journalist Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) begins to pull at the threads of the story, despite the warnings of his shrewd, if crapulous, senior colleague (Denholm Elliott). Pretty soon, Nick becomes aware that powerful forces do not want the truth to come out and will do anything to keep it quiet.
The movie’s perspective is pretty bleak and in that sense one could consider it a British cousin of another of my recommendations, The Parallax View. Byrne, with his dark looks and demeanor, is almost a physical expression of the film’s outlook, which is only further enhanced by the moody cinematography and music.
In addition to its suspenseful and exciting moments, this film has two towering virtues. The first is the performance of Elliott, who steals the movie as a wiser, sadder journalist with a core of integrity. It’s as good as anything this fine actor has carried off in his impressive career. The movie’s other principal pleasure is its evocation of a now-vanished Fleet Street culture, with heavy drinking at lunch, late nights at the office, and some peculiar and charming traditions (e.g., the scene where an ink-stained wretch’s retirement is marked by the sound of pounding printing blocks).
This isn’t a perfect movie. Greta Scacchi, in the sort of role that seemed intended to have critics say “See she’s not just a sex symbol, she can really act!”, is in fact pretty flat as Markham’s assistant and there is zero chemistry between her and Byrne. Also, some viewers may find the film too confusing or downbeat at least some of the time.
That said, Defence of the Realm is a worthy entry into the political paranoia genre that improves with repeated viewing. It will not make you trust your government more, but it will command your attention and keep you on the edge of your seat.
A final trivial note on the film: Prior to the big showdown with nefarious forces, Byrne walks through the same club library in which Daniel Craig and Michael Gambon made a drug deal in another of my recommendations, Layer Cake, which is also the room where I wrote that recommendation and this one too.