Page Eight gives every sign of being a momentous television event. It is a debut outing for “Masterpiece Contemporary” on PBS. Some of the color photography, by Martin Ruhe, is exquisite but sinister—there’s a bruised sky against college masonry in Cambridge that escapes the usual proviso that television cannot be “beautiful” without seeming picturesque. The subject matter turns on such large issues as security, intelligence, Intelligence, honor, and love. The cast is so daunting it makes you keep an open mind about which characters are not to be trusted. What are Marthe Keller, Alice Krige and Judy Davis doing there unless they’re up to no good? In short, can you trust anyone, especially someone you’ve fallen in love with? And then there’s the fact that Page Eight is written and directed by David Hare, whose busy life in theatre and doing the movie scripts for important films and other directors (Damage, The Hours, The Reader), should not make us forget that in the 1980s he wrote and directed three exceptional, small movies, Wetherby, Strapless, and Paris By Night.
The setting is Britain today. Johnny Worricker is an intelligence analyst in MI5. He is also Bill Nighy, tall, elegant, ironic and wasted. Nighy has a brittle bearing and a shy manner that could fit the president of a Cambridge college (Jesus, perhaps, Hare’s alma mater, where some of this film was shot) or a race course bookmaker. He would be brilliant at gathering information, and an obvious case for promotion, except for his old-fashioned attachment to honor and trust. But don’t ask his women to testify about that. Not his ex-wife (Alice Krige), not his daughter Julianne, or his mistress Allegra, and don’t ask the radical activist, Nancy Pierpant, who lives on the same floor in his apartment building and who has slipped into his life so that anyone (after ten minutes of Page Eight) would want to wonder, well is she really as lovely and sincere as Rachel Weisz is making her? Was her brother simply killed by the Israelis?
Johnny has a close friendship, more than women can offer. At school, he was taught by Benedict Baron (Michael Gambon), the director general of MI5 and the man who, when Johnny betrayed his wife, married her himself and helped to look after Johnny’s daughter. But Ben has a problem. He has read a secret report which, on page eight—beyond the point at which most people stop reading—has a clear admission that the American government has “black sites” where it takes uncharged prisoners and tortures them so that it can feel more secure. The report adds this detail: that the British prime minister, Alec Beasley (Ralph Fiennes), knew about the black sites and what was going on, and said nothing.
Very soon, Benedict dies of a heart attack (a loss—any film that starts off with Michael Gambon lets him go at its peril). You wonder if he has been murdered (paranoia grows thicker than the grass in the English countryside), but Johnny guesses that Ben knew his days were numbered and exposed the report because he believed it was in the public interest. Yet the act of exposure, to a Home Secretary, Anthea Catcheside (played with a vicious edge worthy of Sweeney Todd, by Saskia Reeves), makes a scene so tense and so honed on the culture of contemptuous mistrust, that you know lives and careers may end in blood. This is Johnny’s great test, just as if he was a character in Graham Greene. But just as Greene would have ensured (and he’s a big influence on Hare), the test is one in which homeland security and private honor will come so close that you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between them.
This set-up is beautifully shaped, and we never doubt the malice or wickedness of the authority figures: it’s not just Saskia Reeves, but Judy Davis as a nerve-wrecked intelligence official secretly serving the government, and the blunt challenge in Ralph Fiennes’ prime minister, his receding hair crew-cut, his body language taking on the first signs of a fascist strut, his eyes seeming capable of torture on their own. Fiennes was not always a precise actor and it may be that he was overwhelmed by the romance of lead parts when he was reluctant to bare a romantic soul. But in recent years, in character parts, he has grown in authority and nastiness. His Voldemort has come out—and isn’t Alec Beasley a Hogwarts kind of name?
Bill Nighy is the hushed engine of the film, just as Rachel Weisz is asked to be the emblem of a vein of decency and commitment that is worth defending. And that’s where Page Eight goes astray. We believe all too easily that Johnny has been a bastard with women. His charm is something he is trying to suppress because he knows the damage he can do. He would like to grow old, but his humor can’t deflect the helpless effect women have on him. Hare waits for his suspicious atmosphere to subside and then he opts for nothing less than true love between Johnny and Nancy—or, in a world of capital letter Intelligence, what you’d have to call True Love. There’s even a hint at the close that these two will be reunited in harmony and peace on the small colorful island that is the subject of a painting he gives her. And maybe a night will come when they can listen to Billie Holiday and Lester Young, the love affair Johnny cherishes in his favorite music.
Maybe. Or maybe Johnny has flaws that he will never tidy away. The trouble with such astounding performances all through the film, and such stealthy craft in every department, is it’s hard to mask looseness or white lies in the writing. Hare’s heart, I think, is more persuaded by the prospect of betrayal. That’s not pretty or comforting, but he has pushed himself too far in holding on to hope. Still, this is a major contribution to the new genre of unreliable security, and Bill Nighy is magnificent as the last stalwart, if he can only put one foot in front of another and read a cheerful line without breaking down.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.