It was going to take something special to attract Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes back to the small screen: David Hare stepping behind the camera for the first time in 15 years turned out to be it. Directing his own script, Hare serves up a stylish political feature that’s a purposeful throwback to 1960s British espionage thrillers like The Ipcress File and, in Bill Nighy, finds the perfect actor to play his quintessentially English protagonist: Johnny Worricker, a long-serving MI5 intelligence analyst who’s forged a successful career by fading into the background but comes out of the shadows when his boss (Michael Gambon) unveils a dossier showing the UK government knew all along about America’s top-secret torture prisons.
Best known for Oscar-nominated adaptations of The Hours and The Reader, the renowned British playwright might display a more pedestrian talent as a director than he does as a writer, but he keeps a firm grip on his story and laces Page Eight with enjoyably barbed and pithy exchanges. Hare is aided by an excellent cast that includes Gambon, the ever marvellous Judy Davis as a shifty MI5 colleague, Saskia Reeves as a pugnacious government minister and Ewen Bremner as a flamboyant gay journalist. Playing Nighy’s neighbour, the daughter of a famous Arabist who may or may not have her own nefarious agenda, Weisz has some nice, sensitive moments, while Fiennes makes a memorably nasty British prime minister, his macho strut and cropped haircut putting him closer to some post-Soviet Central Asian despot than Tony Blair.
Conceived for small screens, Page Eight is due to go out on the BBC in the UK and PBS in the US, and both Nighy and Hare see mileage in Johnny Worricker as a recurring character. If Hare can keep the screenplays this sharp and continue attracting high-caliber talent like Fiennes and Weisz, then we’d happily come back for more.