Johnny Worricker likes jazz, collects art, drinks whiskey and wears a suit better than man could ever dream of but in the modern era of the MI5, he is quickly becoming a relic. Played with suave, unflappable assuredness by Bill Nighy, “Page Eight,” written with great flair by David Hare — also directing his first film in fourteen years — investigates the troubling intersection of politics and intelligence gathering in the contemporary war on terror and pitches it against a twisty mystery. And while it’s structurally accomplished and delivers a movie that has clearly benefitted from a nearly perfectly honed and built script, its clinical coldness makes it a pictures easy to admire but hard to like.
Your enjoyment of the film will be determined by whether or not you tolerate the first ten to fifteen minutes. This is not only a talk heavy picture — the most dangerous weapon in this MI5 pic is an egg (seriously) — but Hare’s dialogue is also highly mannered and boasts a super dry (and at times nearly obtuse) sense of humor that, while funny, can sometimes be too self-conscious of its cleverness. And it’s that kind of smart stuff on the page that has allowed Hare to assemble folks like Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones and Ewan Bremner for his TV movie (it will air on BBC and PBS later this year) and what helps raise it above the material of your average cable procedural.
Worricker is a man whose job has emotionally disconnected him from his ex-wife and daughter (Jones) and keeps him wary of human relationships in general. When he meets the gorgeous publishing editor (and terribly named) Nancy Pierpan (Weisz), his neighbour across the hall, he isn’t sure what to do. Decades of being on the job has made him wonder if Nancy is really truly interested in someone two decades older than she is or if she’s being used to infiltrate him in some way. Meanwhile, over at the office, his superior and friend Baron (Gambon) hips him to a classified document from an unnamed source that boasts some explosive information. His boss Jill Tankard (Davis) warns him to watch his step as his poking around in the file could have repercussions all the way to the prime minister (Fiennes). He’s got few allies he can turn to as Worricker gets warned early on, but Bremner shines as a dodgy, gay journalist who can dig up the dirt when needed.
Hare conceives a complex web, but as he takes great pains to point out throughout the film, modern intelligence work is hampered by a game of political cloak and dagger that has mutated to such an extreme that the very basis of what the MI5 are supposed to do is corrupted. So no guns are wielded in this film, and there is only one moderate “chase” scene (and it’s a stretch to call it even that). Instead, what we get is a film of endless and eventually overly expository dialogue scenes. We spend pretty much the entire film with Nighy as he unravels the story behind “Page Eight” and though he boasts an engaging and droll air of cool, even he alone can’t hold up a movie that eventually becomes a repetition of scenes of Worricker bouncing from various locations and characters, each which lead to yet another extended scene of two people talking.
But perhaps worse, once we find out what is riding at the center of the mystery, it’s not nearly as intriguing as Hare might think it is. Playing more like a sly political statement, Hare wobbles towards the end on a particularly hard to believe plot development that had the person beside us say “No” to themselves in disgust followed by a deep sigh. It’s not quite as bad as that, but it’s a clumsy introduction of emotion into the movie that curiously feels slapdash and unsophisticated and in stark contrast to the rest of the picture that while at times redundant and/or structurally one-dimensional, does maintain a high level of intelligence between its simple construction.
So are we about to enter the midst of a full blown spy movie revival? That still remains to be seen. While our correspondent in Venice loved “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,” he also cautioned that “it’s an uncompromisingly British film…and the repression of the characters may leave [the audience] feeling that it’s emotionally chilly.” And that can be said of “Page Eight” to some degree. Your feelings for the film may come from whether or not you can penetrate the mostly icy exterior Hare has carefully built for the film, but it’s too bad that even if you do break through, the politically contemporary story winds up feeling more like a BBC news special than a fully realized whodunit. [B-]