Page Eight: Toronto Review

"Page Eight"
David Hare’s first film as writer-director in more than 20 years is a muted affair.

David Hare's British Spy thriller stars Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Judy Davis, Michael Gambon and Ralph Fiennes.

While prolific playwright David Hare’s screenplay adaptations have included The Hours and The Reader, he hasn’t written and directed an original film since the late 1980s. He ends that hiatus with Page Eight, which relocates the model of the 1960s British spy thriller to the contemporary terrorism age. Already aired on BBC in the U.K., and on the PBS Masterpiece schedule for the fall, the film, and Bill Nighy’s lead performance as a veteran MI5 agent, are both restrained to a fault.

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As always, Hare’s writing has dry intelligence, some choice dialogue and subtle wit in its favor. And the classy cast certainly helps, particularly Rachel Weisz. But this playwright is responsible for what is arguably still the most probing dramatic analysis of the political machinations that led to the Iraq War, Stuff Happens. So it seems legitimate to expect a less superficial take on today’s global intrigue. Set to the strains of cool jazz, Page Eight maps a world in which America is a controlling thug, Israel is self-protecting and secretive, and Britain plays along in the shadows. No surprises in that assessment.

The set-up has promise. Nighy plays Johnny Worricker, waylaid while returning home to his flat one night by his neighbor, Nancy Pierpan (Weisz), to rescue her from an awkward date with an odd young Internet entrepeneur. When Ralph (Tom Hughes), the unwanted date, keeps turning up in his orbit, Johnny suspects the meeting may have been no accident.

Johnny has managed to weather the MI5’s transition from counter-espionage to counter-terrorism by doing “dishonorable work in an honorable way.” He acquired that ethos via his old Cambridge teacher, Benedict Baron (Michael Gambon), who remains his best friend, boss and husband to Johnny’s first wife (Alice Krige). Benedict also said, “Never share intelligence you don’t need to share.” But he breaks that rule with a dossier containing detailed information on sites where the U.S. is illegally detaining and torturing prisoners. 

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During a meeting with his antagonistic colleague Jill (Judy Davis), Benedict, and the prickly Home Secretary (Saskia Reeves), Johnny points out an incendiary tidbit at the bottom of page eight of the secret report. It indicates that the British Prime Minister (Ralph Fiennes) is aware of the torture and being briefed on the findings, but keeping that information from MI5. When Benedict suddenly dies of a heart attack, Johnny must decide what to do with the knowledge that Downing Street is running its own cowboy intelligence outfit.

Unsure whom to trust, his predicament is complicated by intensifying feelings for Nancy, whose life has been on hold since her brother was killed during a peace mission in the Gaza Strip. When one of Johnny’s sources turns up incriminating information about that death, a quid pro quo solution presents itself.

Weisz provides a compelling presence, initially ambiguous but steadily more transparent and bruised as she opens up to Johnny and their cautious mutual attraction begins to flicker. But the chemistry goes only one way. Nighy’s sleepy performance is so reserved and his delivery so monotone that Johnny remains curiously spent and unreadable. There’s scope here to create an enigmatic character – he’s a jazz fanatic and fine art collector who gets flak from his daughter (Felicity Jones) for being unable to sustain an honest relationship. But Nighy makes him a remote blank, despite evidence of his gnawing solitude.

Davis is wasted in a standard-issue version of a brittle role she’s played many times before. But the redoubtable Gambon can do a lot with a little, Fiennes injects malevolent shadings into his couple of brief scenes, and Ewen Bremner strikes a rueful note as a casualty of the shifting role of government intelligence.

The post-Cold War evolution of MI5 is a potentially juicy subject, but while Hare lines up the elements, he fails to take the story anyplace especially revelatory or combustible. Somber where it should be suspenseful, and lethargic where it should acquire speed, the film takes an intellectual approach to a genre that demands physical tension.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: BBC, Heyday Films, Runaway Fridge, Carnival Films, Masterpiece, in association with NBC Universal
Cast: Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Judy Davis, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Ewen Bremner, Felicity Jones, Tom Hughes, Alice Krige, Saskia Reeves, Marthe Keller
Director/screenwriter: David Hare
Producers: David Heyman, David Barron
Executive producer: Gareth Neame, Christine Langan, Rebecca Eaton, Scott Rudin, Bill Nighy
Director of photography: Martin Ruhe
Production designer: Christina Casali
Music: Paul Englishby
Costume designer: Julian Day
Editor: Jinx Godfrey
Sales: NBC Universal
No rating, 98 minutes