Page Eight (BBC) - Review
Review by Jack Foley
FROM the start of David Hare’s one-off BBC2 spy drama Page Eight the acclaimed writer-director was at pains to point out the old-school, traditional modus operandii of its main protagonist, Johnny Worriker (Bill Nighy). It was both a strength and a weakness.
Far removed from the high octane energy of the Bourne franchise, or the globe-trotting exploits of 007, Hare’s drama was a talky affair that saw most of its ‘action’ take place in behind-the-scenes meetings or – at one point – a stationary cupboard!
But while certainly playing to the strengths of a first-rate ensemble cast, it also lacked any real urgency or menace. As a result, the pacing prevented what was undoubtedly a superbly acted spy drama from becoming an instant classic that successfully married intelligent narrative with high tension and suspense.
That said, there was still much to recommend Page Eight, not least in Nighy’s mesmerising central performance as Johnny, a jazz loving former ladies man whose inability to hold on to a meaningful relationship stemmed as much from his distrust of everyone (given the nature of his profession) as it did a roving eye and a soft heart.
An intelligence analyst of high standing, Johnny’s predicament arrived when Cambridge best friend Benedict Baron (Michael Gambon) decided to ‘go public’ – ie, alert the Home Secretary – with the potentially damaging contents of a new report identifying American black list sites across the globe that were being used for the illegal detention and torture of terrorism suspects.
The most damning aspect of the report, contained on page eight, came in a single sentence suggesting that the British government was fully aware of such practices.
Days after announcing the contents, Benedict was dead – presumably the victim of a failing heart, although suspicions abounded that there could have been something more behind it.
Nighy, meanwhile, was tasked with honouring his best friend’s last wish while remaining one step ahead of an organisation that no longer needed him.
To further complicate matters, his next door neighbour (Rachel Weisz) requested his assistance in seeking the truth about the death of her brother, a peace activist killed by Israeli soldiers.
Johnny, despite knowing the odds were against him, set about coming up with a way of seeing everything through.
The ensuing drama proved highly absorbing, not least in watching how Nighy navigated his way through some tricky territory without ever losing his cool.
Scenes with Gambon’s playful Benedict and Ewan Bremner’s investigative reporter were particularly strong as the actors mined the clever word-play for every nuance the script was worth.
But while Page Eight was at its best when driving the story forward, it never lost sight of its central character or his feelings of loyalty and honour… best evidenced during scenes between Nighy and his daughter (Felicity Jones, excellent) and in some exchanges between him and Weisz.
The conspiracy theme, concerning rendition and government complicity, was a thinky veiled attack on the Blair regime, as well as the murky morality of gaining intelligence via torture.
But it played distinctly second fiddle to the personal story of Nighy’s Johnny, even though it afforded the actor one terrifically sinister moment alongside Ralph Fiennes, as the dubious British PM.
Hence, by opting for a verbose and resolutely old-school approach to the spy game, Hare’s Page Eight was a triumph of subtlety over hyper-kinetic style and emotional substance over preachy political rhetoric and ‘I told you so’ reflection.
If anything, it offered a sobering insight into how such people may really operate, with career enhancing deals often the bait for keeping silent on key issues.
But as its bittersweet resolution suggested, you also write off the veteran experts at your peril!