Page Eight, PBS

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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‘Page Eight,’ PBS Masterpiece Contemporary

Written and Directed by Sir David Hare
Starring Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, Felicity Jones
Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011, 9–11 p.m. ET/PT
PBS, Masterpiece Contemporary

“Page Eight” is a contemporary spy thriller sans car chases and special effects — in other words, a teleplay for grownups. Written and directed by the award-winning David Hare (“Damage,” “The Hours,” “The Reader”), “Page Eight” seduces the audience into this impressive effort with fabulous acting and a literate screenplay.

The drama revolves around longtime MI-5 analyst, Johnny Worricker (excellently played by Bill Nighy, “The Constant Gardener,” “Love Actually”). Johnny’s work has become thankless and tedious. He has witnessed MI-5’s decline from civility and unanimity of purpose, to 21st-century intrigue, subterfuge and politics.

Johnny’s boss and best friend, Benedict (Ben) Baron (acted by the wonderfully talented Michael Gambon), is also a long-term MI-5 officer. When Ben dies unexpectedly, he bestows on Johnny a mysterious report. Damaging information on page eight of the report jeopardizes the integrity of MI-5 and the British government. As man of quiet integrity, Johnny is honor bound to see Baron’s page eight investigation to its conclusion.

The relationship between Johnny and Ben is complex. Not only were they at Cambridge together and worked congenially at MI-5, but also Ben married one of Johnny’s ex-wives. She is the mother of Johny’s only child, the angry, rebellious Julianne, played convincingly by Felicity Jones (“Northanger Abbey,” “Diary of Anne Frank”). Johnny has all but abandoned his daughter, but by the end of the drama, their relationship has grown and changed.

Adding to the mix is Johnny’s neighbor, Nancy Pierpan, acted by Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz. Nancy is determined to learn the truth about her peace-loving brother’s death by the Israelis. This subplot seems a bit too contrived and unnecessary; although as matters unfold we see that it does provide an additional motive for Johnny’s doggedness. Perhaps the male audience enjoyed seeing an aging, lonely man bedazzled by a young, attractive women seeking his help.

What differentiates “Page Eight” from most other spy thrillers is the degree to which we see politics trump policy. A Tony Blair–type prime minister, played by Ralph Fiennes (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” “The Constant Gardener”) is an example of a back-room politician whose foremost concern is retaining his office, regardless of any moral duty to his country or to anyone or anything else.

The distribution of “Page Eight” is unusual, in that it was sponsored by the BBC for television, yet was shown at various film festivals, including at the closing night at the Toronto Film Festival. No distribution in theaters is planned, but DVDs will be available.

The film begins leisurely and continues unhurriedly. The pace is reminiscent of some Anita Brookner novels, in which the action is slow at the start, but by the end, the characters have changed their lives.

“Page Eight” is the first film in more than 20 years that David Hare both wrote and directed. Although the drama is set in London and Cambridge, David Hare’s writing and direction accentuate the close-ups and conversations among the characters, rather than the scenery. In these close-ups, we can appreciate the sensitivity and subtlety of the actors.

Despite some slow points in the production, the superb performances, the nuanced writing and the glimpse behind the curtain into the harsh reality of intelligence gathering make “Page Eight” outstanding television entertainment.

© Emily S. Mendel 2011 All Rights Reserved


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