Perhaps one of the reasons that Bill Nighy has become more prominent throughout the latter half of his career is the onset of his lined, wisened face that lends itself so well to his acting. He is without doubt one of the greatest British actors around at the moment, boasting his versatility in roles as diverse as seedy pop star Billy Mack in Richard Curtis’s Love Actually and frustrated intellect James Mortmain in Tim Fywell’s adaptation of I Capture the Castle.
Nighy is on top form once again in David Hare’s Page Eight, a film written specifically for the BBC. The cast is top-notch and surely enough to attract scores of viewers wallowing in the Bank Holiday mood; with the promise of Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon and Ralph Fiennes, it is essentially a hybrid of the Harry Potter films and The Constant Gardener. There are several other recognisable British faces: Ewen Bremner (Spud from Trainspotting!), Saskia Reeves (that policewoman from Luther!), Alice Krige (Rachel in the BBC’s adaptation of The Line of Beauty!) and, it seems, several actors from Gervais and Merchant’s Cemetery Junction. Page Eight is chiefly a showcase of British acting talent.
David Hare’s thriller explores the strain in relations between the British government and MI5; the tension between the government’s complicity in unethical activities and the lies it feeds the public; the deconstruction of liberal values in the name of international security. It’s all very topical in light of the Chilcot Inquiry, the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and the never-ending “War on Terror”. The themes are interesting and the plot gripping, but it is strung together by just too many conveniences to ring true.
Nighy is intelligence agent and apparent philanderer Johnny Worricker, and his partner in crime is Gambon’s Benedict Baron. It just so happens that not only are they old friends from university, but Baron is now married to Worricker’s ex-wife too.
Another coincidence that rather strains on one’s suspension of disbelief is that at the beginning of the film, Nancy Pierpan, played by the stunning Rachel Weisz, has lived in the flat opposite Worricker for a year without their having met. Worricker discovers that there has been a tragedy in Pierpan’s family and commissions his journalist friend (handy) to fly to Israel and see what he can find. Similarly, a creepy adolescent’s link to Worricker’s workplace would be ridiculously implausible, did he not pop up so much throughout that ultimately, it was all too predictable.
I don’t want to denigrate Page Eight too much; in fact, some of these unlikelihoods have only dawned on me twenty-four hours later. The dialogue, relationships between characters and their development is incredibly well-crafted; for example Pierpan, who could easily be tediously one-dimensional, manages to be as well-rounded a character as possible with such limited exposure. Furthermore, having initially groaned at the seemingly cheap prospect of a relationship between her and Worricker, by the end I found it touching – but I am a hopeless romantic, so perhaps not trustworthy.
Ultimately, David Hare paints acute portrait of the immorality within the institutions by which we are governed; whilst the discovery of American “black sites” and torture of terror suspects may no longer be groundbreaking, one could compare the corruption portrayed by Hare to that exposed by the recent phone-hacking scandal that shed light upon collusion between the government, the media and the police.
Page Eight is also a story of Good Cop/Bad Cop, with Worricker and Baron as the “good cops” struggling against the remainder of MI5 and the British government. Whilst the supporting characters constantly frustrate Worricker by reminding him that “it’s the 21st century” (though I felt this was somewhat far-fetched as his ex-wife’s excuse for their daughter not knowing the identity of the father of her child), the implication is that everyone around Worricker is losing grip on their principles as he strives to obtain justice. Hare seems to be despairing of the moral decay within government, but conceding, in an almost Brechtian sense, that one cannot fully function in certain sections of society without compromising their morals. When Worricker does decide to do “the right thing”, he must compromise affairs of the heart instead. It’s a tough world.
David Hare’s production touches on interesting themes but it just doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It has been several years now since we learned of the dodgy dealings between Britain and the US throughout the War on Terror, much of which one would learn a lot more about by watching the film Rendition. Unfortunately, both governments colluding with Israeli war crimes is also hardly shocking. However, the direction between characters and the marvellous actors cast to play them help make up for both this and the rather implausible circumstances, making Page Eight worth viewing.