David Hare, who has been writing screenplays for a long time, has polished off a corker of a spy story, called Page Eight. And it is timely, in the light of recent revelations that the American spooks at the NSA have been eavesdropping on the British spooks. The movie, which was directed as well as written by Hare, benefits from a first-class cast, headed by Bill Nighy, who plays MI-5 analyst Johnny Worricker with his usual laconic persona – a perfect fit for this character. Also in the cast are Michael Gambon, who plays MI-5’s Director General and Worricker’s mentor, and Ralph Fiennes, who plays the British Prime Minister. It will not spoil things if I tell you that the plot pivots on whether the PM knew about the Americans’ rendition of prisoners to countries known to tolerate torture.
Most of the male characters, especially Worricker and his boss, are decent human beings, while most of the baddies are female – particularly Judy Davis, who is terrific as Jill Tankard, a colleague of Worricker’s at MI-5. The dialog is crisp, a Hare staple, and the production values are good. In fact, one wonders why more wasn’t made of the film when it was released in 2011. Maybe Nighy wasn’t big enough a star to warrant major promotion; if Johnny Depp or George Clooney had played the lead there might have been more – but it wouldn’t have been nearly as good a movie.
As mentioned, there are several references to the sharing or nonsharing of intelligence between the American and British intelligence agencies, and Hare makes no bones about the realities of the situation. Intelligence people lie – that’s what they do, even to each other – and to think otherwise if plain foolish. If Barack Obama summons the head of the CIA or NSA and asks him a straight question, will he get a truthful answer? Maybe, but one would be foolish to bet one’s life on it. The same is true the world over.
Sharing top billing with Nighy, for reasons unknown to me, is Rachel Weisz, who plays Nancy Pierpan, a neighbor of Worricker’s. She is the nearest thing to a romantic element the film offers, and her character adds little to the plot. In fact, the pace quickens in the scenes at the offices of MI-5 and reaches a crescendo in the scene between Worricker and the Prime Minister.
Good spy dramas don’t need shootings or stabbings to keep you on the edge of your seat. What they need is believable characters who talk intelligently about subjects that matter. It helps if the central character is sympathetic and perceived to be in mortal danger. Page Eight delivers on all counts.