Serving as a kind of warm-up act for the big-screen adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy currently cresting the horizon, BBC Two has debuted David Hare’s new spy film, his first original television script for twenty years.
Page Eight is a story about the integrity of the British intelligence services and that of the intelligence they receive. Broadcast as we await publication of the report on the Chilcot Inquiry, and coming hard on the heels of Hackgate, Hare could hardly have chosen a more pertinent subject than the provenance of the information gathered in our information age.
Page Eight depicts a tectonic shift within MI5, a throwing-out of old methods and a bringing-in of the new. The old-fashioned way of doing things has been replaced by sleek gadgetry, and the lives of operatives who refuse to compromise their ethics in the war against terror are steadily, assuredly, made a living hell. British intelligence is now a spinning moral compass, in the pocket of a government which, at best, is turning a blind eye to the practice of torture.
It is, David Hare insists, a complete fiction.
Bill Nighy plays Johnny Worricker, a suave spook in a dark blue suit who discovers an incriminating line on page eight of an MI5 document. While Worricker determines what to do with his findings, the net slowly closes in, endangering him, his family, his best friend, and his beautiful neighbour with a tragic backstory (Rachel Weisz).
Page Eight is a 60s throwback, stylistically and in terms of character. Worricker remains dry, droll and largely unruffled throughout proceedings, stepping impassively through events with the restrained acceptance of a man slowly losing a game of chess, but who, it turns out, has kept a surprise move for the end.
Nighy plays Worricker as something of a mellowed Bond type, if you could imagine 007 having opted for an office job rather than a license to kill. The womanising’s been swapped for art collecting and a love of jazz, he may have picked up a daughter and series of ex-wives along the way, but the cool manoeuvring is still there.
Worricker isn’t a character who bawls at injustice, instead recognising it for what it is, giving it a sage nod, then making his move. He’s so unflappable, in fact, that the audience is deprived of ever feeling tense about his situation, particularly in the film’s somewhat calm pursuit scenes.
Worricker’s most enjoyable moments are mid-banter with best friend and MI5 boss, Benedict Baron (Michael Gambon). Both actors are in their element, with Hare’s pithy, honed dialogue, swapping lines with the practised ease of a married couple (the characters do happen to have an ex-wife in common), and sharing in-jokes the audience wants to be in on.
As you’d expect from the pen of a playwright who made his name on the BBC’s Play For Today series (regarded as something of a halcyon period which kick-started the careers of many other writers and directors of Hare’s generation, from Mike Leigh to Ken Loach and Stephen Poliakoff), Hare’s script is stylised and precise.
People don’t really speak the way Hare writes them (or perhaps I just don’t hang around with enough MI5 operatives), but he makes you wish they did. Page Eight’s words are measured, stylish and, as many of them come out of Bill Nighy’s mouth, delivered with suave irony.The unnatural, play-like quality of the script means themes are sometimes announced rather too heavily. Worricker’s daughter demands of him at one point “Do you have any honest relationships?” a line one could see being rephrased for an A level exam question: “In the world Hare depicts of mistrust and untruths, does Johnny Worricker have any honest relationships? Discuss”.
Over-enunciation aside, Page Eight is an interesting story with a strong ensemble cast and solid direction. Nighy, Gambon and Weisz are joined by Ralph Fiennes, Judy Davis, Felicity Jones, and, briefly, Ewen Bremner, all of whom are terrific.
Cast as Worricker’s neighbour Nancy, Rachel Weisz is a boon to the film, though the Israel-Palestine subplot she introduces is its weakest link. A slight, flimsily drawn addition to the story which says little else than Israel equals bad, its inclusion is an overreach for an already full story.
Depending on your feelings about wrinkly-necked men getting off with pre-Raphaelite beauties more than twenty years their junior, the pair’s romantic entanglement may leave something of an odd taste in the mouth, but at least Hare has the good sense to cut tastefully away from whatever happens after the pair kiss.
Page Eight ends up as a cerebral, but somehow sterile film. It succeeds in giving us something to think about, but is less good at making us feel anything much about it. Its lead is a little too cool, and its dialogue a little too measured to allow the audience to get really involved in the characters.
With an ending that’s primed for a sequel or two, though, and noises already being heard about making Worricker a recurring character, perhaps we’ll have the chance to get more attached in future outings. Nighy is deliciously good as the droll spy, so I certainly wouldn’t turn down a second helping.
Whatever reservations about its emotional reach, this first instalment is a treat for television, a well-cut, expensively-lined suit of a film that may not be as important as its message, but nonetheless looks damn sharp.