Page Eight is a BBC production shown as part of the Masterpiece Contemporary series. It aired on PBS on Sunday, November 6, is available at the above link to watch online, and I’m sure it’ll be streaming on Netflix in no time. Who knows where else you can see it? Oh brave new world.
Anyway, it’s written and directed by David Hare and has an all-star class screaming “prestige production.” Seriously: Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, Ralph Fiennes, and Alice Krige. Despite the prestige cast and gorgeous London locations, it has that BBC tape quality that feels a little like it was filmed in someone’s basement.
Page Eight concerns senior level British Secret Service (MI5) agents discovering damning evidence regarding British complicity in U.S. operation of “black sites.” It’s “ripped from the headlines” spying which, if you’re used to spy thrillers as a form of Cold War nostalgia, can bring you up short.
More importantly, it concerns the nature of trust and loyalty. Who does a spy trust? What is the truth? What does distrust do to relationships?
Johnny (Nighy) is a veteran agent reporting directly to Ben (Gambon), the Director General. Ben hands his senior staff a top secret file, revealing that Downing Street was aware of U.S. torture operations; the Prime Minister’s personal connection is potentially explosive. When Ben dies suddenly, Johnny must decide what Ben’s intention was in distributing the file, and who to trust.
Meanwhile, Johnny’s neighbor Nancy (Weisz) is becoming friendly towards him. Does she have a political agenda? Is she who she says she is?
Since this is a David Hare piece, it’s wonderfully wordy, and the conversations are the best part all-around. These characters are smart, worldly, and interesting. The “spying in a post-9/11 world” thing maybe didn’t work so well. It felt like the plot was hitting the bullet points rather than digging into things. The intrigue is, at first, quite confusing, but by the time it was all unraveled I felt like it didn’t amount to much, like what we discovered was “people are spying.”
Where Page Eight excels is in relationships. There’s real warmth between Johnny and Ben, complicated by the fact that Ben married Johnny’s ex-wife (Krige). There’s undercurrents of rivalry between Jill (Davis) and Johnny, and there’s Johnny’s relationship with his daughter (Felicity Jones).
Most of the acting is great, and allow me an aside to praise the entire country of Great Britain for allowing its actresses to age without botox–what faces they have. Nighy, though, at the center of the piece, gives a strange performance. He is so often completely blank that I thought at first we were dealing with the time-honored tale of a milquetoast. But as we learn about Johnny–his love of jazz, his art collection, his reputation as a ladies man–that doesn’t make sense. It’s as though Nighy decided to drain all his comedy chops out of his face and forgot to add enough back.
Nighy’s performance and an over-abundance of self-seriousness weaken what is otherwise a very enjoyable tale of intrigue that really has a heart.