(Page Eight, David Hare, UK, 2011, 100 mins)
The world of secret intelligence is one of private encounters behind closed doors: very hush-hush. There is something inherently dramaturgical about such scenarios, whose language games unfold in the absence of extras and their entire hubbub. This works to David Hare’s advantage: prolific he may be, at a writing desk, but his directorial prowess is oft maligned. Here, that singular theatrical flair produces character-driven drama, whose plot is intimate to the protagonist, propelled by his discoveries and self-reinventions. Don’t expect pretensions to international espionage intrigue, or the genre conventions of conspiracy thrillers. Page Eight is really about the climacteric of one senior officer’s life and the changing constitution of our security services.
Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy) is a formidable intelligence analyst at MI5, whose official lack of seniority does not betray his intimate working relationship with the General Director, Benedict Baron (Michael Gambon). Their association goes back to Jesus College, Cambridge (Hare’s alma mater) and runs deeper still, the latter having married the former partner and mother of Johnny’s child. He seems to be a lonely man without roots, whose life has been lived by skulduggery and brightened only by many brief loves.
In a single day, Johnny is handed a mysterious and extremely sensitive dossier, causes an emotional rift with his artist daughter, and is approached by an alluring neighbour (Rachel Weisz) with dubious motives. The file implicates Downing Street in nefarious American renditions, while the neighbour involves Johnny in a game of subtle flirtation, personal tragedy and Middle Eastern politics. Baron calls a meeting with the Home Secretary in order to discuss the contents of that intelligence report. He has been compelled to disclose it among a select group of spooks, setting a cat among the pigeons for their maverick Prime Minister.
The sinister Alec Beasley (Ralph Fiennes) is played with tremendous bottled menace, making a surprise appearance at Johnny’s reunion dinner at the high table of his old college. The subsequent arranged disappearance takes Johnny by night through the streets and market stalls of central Cambridge, with an aesthetic flourish that clearly indulges Hare’s nostalgia. His principal preoccupation, however, is the compromises required of our public servants by rogue senior politicians whose liberal philosophy is marked by moral relativism: an extremely critical account of Britain’s past decade.
Yet much of what makes Page Eight such a refreshing delight resides in the story of Johnny. Our hero has a studied air of casual disregard for protocol, which only confirms his precise control of appearances and underlying professionalism. In one scene he answers the inquiry of former protégé Rollo (Ewen Bremner) inquiry with another question, and is immediately flagged up for employing textbook interrogation technique; thereafter, it’s readily apparent how frequently Johnny uses such tricks to turn conversations to his advantage. This is a meaty, nuanced role in which Nighy finally has a chance to showcase the depth of his stage talent on screen.
Johnny is complex, but he isn’t complicated. His terse lines would be tough to overact, and his heroism is neither epic nor tragic. His fate hinges upon the subtle observation that ethical practice in intelligence depends on choosing who needs to know what, and when. There is no great catharsis, but instead, the slight satisfaction of knowing Johnny makes the best possible choice for those he’s capable of helping. Unlike jazz (in his ex-wife’s opinion), Johnny proves himself not entirely useless. And this is enough, because we care about the man; Hare’s characters live and breathe, eliciting empathy from an intelligent audience without exploiting an emotive soundtrack to force-feed us emotion like culturally desensitised geese.
Page Eight ultimately proves both realistic about the evil cynicism of contemporary politics, and optimistic about the virtue of some characters: a thoroughly ethical film, and thrilling to boot. Any further details would spoil the experience and, as such, are strictly confidential.