The 1980s were a golden age for paranoid conspiracy thrillers, especially in Britain. While America responded to the heating up of the Cold War with jingoistic fare like Rambo, Red Dawn and Rocky IV, Britain tended to turn inwards, looking for the enemy within.
On television you had the likes of Edge of Darkness, A Very British Coup and the Secret Servant while in the cinema you had Hidden Agenda and Defence of the Realm. All these works deal with an idea that was very popular at the time, namely that the government was up to no good and was either full of KGB spies or the secret services were out of control. The title of this movie comes from the British Defence of the Realm Act which was passed in 1914 at the start of the First World War. The Act essentially empowered the British government to take whatever steps it thought were necessary in order to protect the people. Gradually this power had grown over time to the point where the security services are virtually unaccountable. When they do make mistakes it’s usually hidden behind the screen of national security to the point where they can get away with virtually anything.
Defence of the Realm concerns a journalist, played by Gabriel Byrne, who discovers that a British Minister is having an affair. This is compounded by the fact that the woman he is seeing is also in close contact with a Soviet diplomat raising the spectre of a Profumo Affair type scandal. However things are not as they first appear (when are they ever?) and it quickly becomes apparent that there are more sinister forces at work. Ok, ok the plot sounds a bit clichéd when put like that but this is actually a very solid political thriller. It’s not showy but delivers where it counts. It also provides a fairly realistic look at a now vanished world of British journalism in the pre-Murdoch, pre-digital era. The internet is a fair few years away, as are mobiles, so everybody is reliant on typewriters and seems to spend an awful lot of time in the pub drinking, proving that not everything about the 80s was awful.
Defence of the Realm also illustrates the different approaches Britain and America have to these matters. While in the USA you had Warren Beatty running around as the world’s most glamorous journalist in the Parallax View, here you have Gabriel Byrne looking like he’s been pulled through a hedge backwards (this is before Hollywood got their hands on him) and Denholm Elliot doing his drunk act. In America you have sinister corporations and high-tech government assassins while Britain has grey middle-class civil servants and rather shabby intelligence officers. The fact that many of these characters seem like they might have stepped straight out of an Ealing comedy or BBC sitcom helps obscure the fact that they are just as deadly as their American counterparts, and when they are violent it’s all the more shocking for it.
On a final note, unlike many films of this period Defence of the Realm doesn’t use 80s pop songs which would have dated it horribly. Instead it uses either classical pieces or a low-key synth score. Considering that so many 80s movies made use of Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet this seems like a lucky escape.
Here is the trailer for Defence of the Realm: