Stuff About England
A BBC2 movie with a dream casting, Page Eight is a quiet spy drama in the John Le Carré’s vein, extremely well written, elegantly directed and, not surprisingly, supremely well acted. It is best enjoyed for its deadpan dialogues, wryly delivered by some of the best British thespians around. A small gem with not an ounce of violence but filled with menace and danger.
Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy, who can load a seemingly innocuous line like “I’ve got a question” with chilling tension), is an old school MI5 analyst reporting to his Cambridge friend Benedict Baron (Michael Gambon, great in an old chap role he could play in his sleep) with whom he “shares a wife”, Emma (Alice Krige, always gloriously venomous). She was pregnant with their daughter Julianne (Felicity Jones) when he left her for another woman and she married Baron. Julianne resents her father to have let her and her mother down and expresses her anger and resentment through troubled paintings, which Johnny, a fond art collector, does not appreciate. He lives a quiet, discreet life in an apartment which walls are covered with art, and listens to jazz. He doesn’t believe in the Special Relationship with USA.
Two events disrupt this routine in rapid fire. He meets his neighbour, Nancy (Rachael Weisz, a guarantee of quality in herself), daughter of a Syrian activist and whose brother has been killed by the Israeli while waving a white flag, and a possible set up. His boss dies after presenting out of the blue a report to the Home Secretary (Saskia Reeves, whose great first line is “Let’s start the bloody meeting!”). The report, from a secret American source, proves that USA have secret prison facilities abroad and its page eight establishes that the British Prime Minister (Ralph Fiennes, reptilian as ever) has knowledge of it.
The conundrum is the following: is the report wrong, in which case USA has left Great Britain in the dark, or is it true, in which case the PM has left his Home Secretary in the dark? Head of MI5 Jill Tankard (Judy Davies, not seen often enough) does not appreciate to be caught unbalanced and threatened Johnny to fire him if he does not return the top secret report he has in his possession. Will Johnny take a stance or yield to pressure? One won’t tell, but the way he navigates this tricky waters makes for some very good, if subdued, espionage.
The job of an analyst is to know who to trust. The legacy of Johnny’s friend and boss is “a matter of honour”. Faced with spin doctors and treacherous politicians, he remains “an all round decent person”, the trait we love in British people even though it largely remains a mystery, like most of Angliana. Asked why he changed his mind at some point, he eludes “Oh you know, wind, caprice…” A feast of understatement, Page Eight is an all round decent movie, well, more than decent, actually. No question.