With a solid reputation for superior dramas, PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre has undoubtedly been a hard act to follow. Now its close cousin, Masterpiece Contemporary raises the bar tonight with the tightly woven political thriller, Page Eight. Writer-director David Hare (the playwright perhaps best known in the States for his screenplays The Hours and The Reader) has culled together a terrific cast of players led by Bill Nighy that includes Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, Felicity Jones, and Rachel Weisz.
A traditional spy drama, taut with suspense, Page Eight almost feels sophisticated in its darkness, with undercurrents of danger lurking in the shadows and veiled threats being made from unexpected quarters, wholly reminiscent of—
—Noir when it was king.
Long-time military intelligence analyst Johnny Worricker (Nighy) is a passionate man, about his art collection, jazz records and the many women he has wooed—some of whom he’s married, though none for very long. His boss, the Director General of MI5 (Gambon) is married to one of Johnny’s ex-wives, but as his best friend, the DG is the longest sustained relationship he’s ever had. In fact, Johnny’s made an art out of steering clear of true intimacy with anybody—including his former wives and daughter—and never discussing matters involving faith or politics. He may be alone, but he sleeps through the night.
After an explosive report containing damming implications involving higher-ups within the UK administration makes its way to his department it, ironically, falls on Johnny’s shoulders to either make a stand and do the right thing or play it safe and do nothing. Nothing is what he would normally do. To make matters more complicated his neighbor (Weisz), a mysterious young woman, suddenly reaches out to him. His spy instincts tingle with suspicion: is she who she says she is or is she there to trap him?
Michael Gambon is the Director General of MI5.
Filled with top-notch talent, this remains Nighy’s show. His contained portrayal of a desk-spy called to action is a plum role for the actor and a far cry from his characters in the vampire Underworld features, the over-the-top Pirates of the Caribbean films, or as the aging rocker in the romantic comedy Love Actually. It’s more in line with the editor-in-chief he played in the BBC miniseries State of Play (being reshown this fall on BBC America’s Dramaville—another don’t-miss if you did first time around)
As for Page Eight, a lot of folks nowadays are aware of the boogie man behind the curtain of politics pulling levers and pushing buttons. And yet, the world of modern day espionage maintains its air of mystery. It’s understandable why this made-for-TV drama had the distinction of being the closing feature at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. An intelligent script, skillful direction, editing, art direction and a swell cast is what makes Page Eight nothing if not terrific.
Ralph Fiennes as Britain’s Prime Minister in the PBS drama
Make sure you check your local PBS listings for tonight’s airing and look for it on Blu-ray and DVD after November 8th.
Postscript: Originally intended for the big screen, David Hare had difficulty getting Page Eight financed. (Too much talking and not enough violence and lovemaking, he was told.) He persisted, eventually deciding to produce it for television. It was a labor of love for him and many of his cast members. HERE’s an interview with Hare and Nighy about how the project came to be.