Thursday, October 20, 2011

In short: Page Eight (2011)

MI5 analyst Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy) is among the last of a dying breed. Despite certainly being the public school bred upperclass type you'd expect in his position and age group, he's also not really part of any old boy's network. Johnny has too large of a moral streak for that, and still lives by the conviction that the ultimate goal of intelligence work is finding the truth, something that doesn't make him too popular among his more modern colleagues.

One would expect a man like that to have grown quite cynical over the years, but what the life of a spy has made Johnny, is lonely. Four ex-wives - one of whom (Alice Krige) is now married to his best friend and boss Benedict Baron (Michael Baron) - and an alienated daughter (Felicity Jones) are a pretty good demonstration of the spy's difficulties in opening up emotionally.

Johnny's life gets more exciting again when his decidedly younger neighbour Nancy Pierpan (Rachel Weisz) begins to show an interest in him. Not surprisingly, Johnny's a bit sceptical about Nancy; he does know a lot about ulterior motives, after all.

That feeling of something not being  quite alright around Johnny is not exactly decreasing when Benedict dies of a heart attack shortly after he revealed a file containing proof of the Prime Minister's (Ralph Fiennes) undisclosed knowledge about US torture camps to the Home Secretary (Saskia Reeves).

As if Ben's death weren't bad enough, someone in MI5 seems to want to use the opportunity to get rid of a fossil like Johnny. The spy is convinced that his dead friend wanted him to do the right thing with the information about the PM, but finding out what "the right thing" actually entails and surviving the politics surrounding it is quite a different thing. Ironically, Johnny might even need to begin to trust people again to survive.

If you've seen Red, you know that a (kinda-sorta) spy movie about an aging intelligence officer can be generic action crap like any other blockbuster. If you watch David Hare's BBC production Page Eight, you'll realize that a semi-realist spy movie about an aging intelligence officer can also still be thoughtful, quietly funny, and working inside the borders of its genre without wallowing in the obvious.

Hare - who also directed - is responsible for a tight script that prefers to be sly and seemingly unassuming, even though it is thematically quite rich. It's probably as good a film about an aging spy as I've seen, using the spy genre tropes of a man alienated from his surroundings and emotionally distant (though Johnny is neither in a spectacular way - this is not the sort of film that tries to lay anything on thick), to explore how growing old and lonely might feel to someone who is too intelligent not to know that he's wasted many of his chances and new ones might not come along anymore.

At the same time, neither its main character nor Page Eight are as dark or bitter as they could be: although it shows a lot of scorn for people playing politics and the hypocrisy of that particular game, there's also an honest strain of hope running through it that avoids kitsch and too easy ways out as much as it avoids cheap cynicism.

As a director, Hare is never flashy, but is pretty good at just stepping back and letting his script and his actors carry the weight of the story and the characters; that's what the film's brilliant cast, lead by an especially brilliant Nighy, is there for after all.


1 comment:

A. Lee Firth said...

My two word review; 'nothing happens.'

I thought it was a very slow opening episode of a series...but I was mistaken; it was merely the most boring ninety minutes of drama I've ever seen. I kept on watching just to see if something would happen - but it didn't.