On August the 9th, there was an incident at an American military base in Britain: two youths in a stolen car were being chased by the police nearby, and one of them managed to climb over a fence in a bid to escape. What happened next was covered up. A while later, and Labour M.P. Dennis Markham (Ian Bannen) was being investigated by a national newspaper concerning his apparent meeting with a K.G.B. agent and East German official, Dietrich Kleist. Could there be subterfuge involved? And what connection is there to the cover up at the base? To journalist Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne), it's just another story... and yet...
Released during the height of the Cold War when it looked as if East and West were itching to bave a go at one another leaving the general population in the dust of nuclear fallout, Defence of the Realm was much praised at the time, though made little impact. Perhaps a more favourable home for it would be television, and indeed its director David Drury went on to helm various successful TV projects, because it felt like a dramatic thriller in the vein of the now-classic Edge of Darkness which had been broadcast the same year to great acclaim.
The film also introduced Byrne as leading man material, and here he works with a creditable London accent as well as making Mullen's turnaround from cynical hack to concerned citizen nothing less than believable. The story that marks that realisation is dropped onto his desk, or fed to him through his telephone actually, when an anonymous caller suggests he look deeper into a Prague conference of a few years back. This he does and discovers an incriminating photgraph that appears to link Markham and Kleist without any doubts.
But is Mullen being manipulated? His fellow journalist Vernon Bayliss (Denholm Ellliott) seems to think so, but in between drunken hazes he is reluctant to tell Mullen everything he knows; is he man who knew too much? It appears that way when Bayliss ends up dead after a night of drinking, but it's a sign of the story's keenly felt paranoia that we immediately suspect foul play. It doesn't take our hero much more time to draw the same conclusion and he has to do a lot of digging through old newspapers to find the links he needs: the film is brave enough to show clippings that we have to read just as Mullen does to twig precisely what the conspiracy is.
Taking place around various London locations and offices, all the signs are that this is a thriller for a more refined viewer's tastes. It's telling that the only significant female role, Markham's angel-faced personal assistant Nina Beckman (Greta Scacchi), is never considered as love interest to Mullen, although they do eventually get embroiled in the shadowy goings-on together. Suspense setpieces can be presented as Mullen believing he is being followed on an isloated country road at night, or a tantalising effort to grab secret documents hidden in a lift shaft and under the noses of the powers that be, but really it's the pervasive sense of more going on underneath the surface than we are being told that makes the film such a success. Only the abrupt ending seems a misstep. Music by Richard Harvey.