Gosh, I do love an autumn of subterfuge. The entire world is waiting with bated breath to see whether Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is going to be amazing or fantastic (don’t even kid yourself it won’t be at least one of the two), and with just a few weeks to go until its release good old Auntie Beeb evidently thought the salivating cinematic world needed a cloak-and-dagger hors d’œuvre. The result is Page Eight, David Hare’s first film as director for more than twenty years and a very credible little drama; if you somehow don’t already love Bill Nighy more than life itself, you won’t have long to wait.
Johnny Worricker (Nighy) is a man out of his time. He’s spent the best years of his life in a spotless office somewhere in the bowels of MI5, but the game is changing and he feels less and less connection to what was once his calling. His one great comfort at work is the presence of his best friend Benedict (Gambon), a Cambridge chum who’s now Johnny’s boss. Benedict’s also married to Johnny’s ex-wife Emma (Alice Krige) – one of several ex-wives, if truth be told, although Emma does have the distinction of being the mother of his semi-estranged daughter Julianne (Felicity Jones).
Things look like they could drift along in the same old functional way forever… until Benedict produces a dossier which casts the so-called ‘Special Relationship’ between Britain and America in a revealing and worrying new light. However, only Johnny spots the crucial sentence on page eight which suggests that a sinister rot is eating away at the very centre of Whitehall. The dossier contains secrets which could bring down governments, and suddenly it’s decided that Johnny isn’t quite the safe pair of hands he’s been for decades. And as if all this isn’t complicated enough, he’s finally met his next door neighbour Nancy (Weisz) – a Syrian activist trying to expose a suspected Israeli cover-up of her brother’s suspicious death. All of a sudden, living in Battersea sounds very stressful…
If there’s one thing the procession of FBI, CIA and NSO (Non-specific Security Organisation, to you) films which Hollywood haemorrhages on a yearly basis has taught us, it’s that Americans can’t do understated spy dramas. And why would they? The States is packing enough macho cops, gun-toting agents and exaggerated hit men to keep Jack Ryan fans happy until the end of time, whereas the sum total of British ‘cool copper’ flair is permanently tied up in James Bond. Just look at George Smiley, the legendary spy from John Le Carré’s fictional ‘Circus’ – Gary Oldman’s forthcoming portrayal of him notwithstanding, Smiley is generally described as short, pudgy and bespectacled. We don’t do extravagantly dramatic, then, but we do ‘understated’ very well indeed – and Page Eight does it as well as anything else out there.
There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about the visuals of Page Eight which one suspects is down to director David Hare’s recent past in the theatre – a wide shot is never used when a cramped one would suffice, leading to a curiously focused style which emphasises the fact that we’re watching one small story with potentially massive consequences. Frankly, this couldn’t be more ideal as a medium through which to enjoy yet another pitch-perfect performances from the matchless Bill Nighy. Every glance, tic and strangled murmur are faithfully relayed to the viewer, making the job of ignoring how underwritten most of the other characters are a relatively easy one. The script is sound if misguided in places (we should really get over the Israel = EVIL motif soon), and when the rest of the cast get a moment onscreen they’re universally competent. Michael Gambon’s endearingly crusty DG is particular fun, whilst Rachel Weisz is moving if not heartrending as grieving activist Nancy.
Unfortunately, one can’t help feeling that Hare has done his job a little too well. Several characters point out that the dilemma of modern intelligence is not what to do, but how to fish the important facts from the flood of data available; the job of an analyst is obviously a long, tiresome and thankless one, and Page Eight’s audience is made just a little too aware of that. Realism is all very well, but if we don’t retain some of the mystique (however inappropriate) which surrounds the spy game then it’s in danger of getting a little bit dull.