In 2011, the BBC premiered Page Eight, broadcasting it on television a few months before it was aired to America audiences under the mantle of Masterpiece Contemporary. Written and directed by playwright David Hare, the film flew under the radar in the U.S. despite having a cast of luminaries, including Bill Nighy as aging spy Johnny Worricker, Rachel Weisz as his neighbor, Michael Gambon as Benedict Baron, the director general of MI5, and Ralph Fiennes as the Prime Minister. The opportunity to see Dumbledore and Voldemort facing off against each other aside, Page Eight is an accomplished, subtle thriller; theatrical while almost defiantly modest in a very British way.
Johnny Worricker returns to PBS in two follow-ups to Page Eight airing this month. Worricker: Turks and Caicos (November 9) sees the now-exiled spy on the lam from his former employer in the Caribbean, while Worricker: Salting the Battlefield follows his return to England in an attempt to protect his family. Before watching the sequels—which feature an all-star lineup including Christopher Walken, Helena Bonham-Carter, Winona Ryder, and Olivia Williams—it's worth catching up with the first film in the series, available to stream via PBS's website and Netflix. The movie was criticized when it aired in the U.S. for its perceived anti-American tone, but its cynical treatment of those in power is aimed just as much toward British authorities, particularly the scheming Prime Minister Alec Beasley (Fiennes) and his power-hungry Home Secretary Andrea Catcheside (Saskia Reeves). Worricker, accustomed to putting country first, infuriates both with his laconic drawl, his quiet insistence on following the old rules, and his irreverent attitude towards almost everyone.
The plot is structured around two interweaving threads: a document discussed in a joint MI5-Home Office meeting that seems to implicate the Prime Minister in knowing about unauthorized American torture camps around the globe, and Worricker's relationship with his neighbor, Nancy (Weisz), a book editor whose brother was killed during a peaceful protest against Israeli occupation in the West Bank. Beasley's desire to dismantle the MI5 and replace it with an American-style Department of Homeland Security means that Worricker and his like will soon be dispensed with, but the existence of the secret document, the most damning part of which lives on page eight (hence the title), gives Worricker and Baron (Gambon) some leverage. After Baron dies of a heart attack, Worricker believes he raised the existence of the memo as a last attempt to save the intelligence agency, and feels duty-bound to follow through with Baron’s mission.
When he isn’t working, Worricker collects art in his modest apartment in Battersea, listens to jazz, and tries to mend bridges with his rebellious artist daughter, Julianne (Felicity Jones, currently playing Stephen Hawking’s wife in The Theory of Everything). Like Nighy himself, Worricker is irresistible to women, despite being more advanced in years than some of his counterparts. This is perhaps the only thing he has in common with that much more famous British spy, given that he doesn’t seem great with technology (“I’ve been taking photos of your operation … and sending them to a computer,” he tells an antagonist at one point) and doesn’t “do guns or violence.” Instead, his spy capabilities seem to be based around quietly observing things around him, and perceiving who he can and can’t trust. Hare allows the character jokes (“Things got so bad last night that I went home and watched the X Factor,” he says), but Nighy’s muted, deadpan delivery makes them as tightly controlled as everything else in the production.
Worricker’s relationship with Nancy is one of the more intriguing parts of the movie to watch, given not only their age difference (Weisz is some 20 years younger, but looks even more so), but their undeniable chemistry. At first, he considers her interest in him to be so unusual that he wonders if she’s also a spy, but perhaps he’s being too modest. The Home Secretary’s assistant, Anna (Holly Aird) is revealed to be both a lover and a source, while a gallery owner (Marthe Keller) closes her eyes when he kisses her goodbye in a way that implies for her, the moment could last forever. But it’s Nancy whom Worricker seems most captivated by. “They come and go, don’t they Johnny,” says his prickly MI5 superior Jill (Judy Davis, in an Emmy-nominated role). “Not Lester,” Johnny replies,” referring to an earlier scene where he and Nancy watched videos of Billie Holiday and Lester Young, observing how desperately in love the singer was with the musician.
Hare is best known for his plays, including Plenty, Amy’s View, and the recently revived Skylight, but he also wrote the screenplays for the Oscar-nominated The Hours and The Reader. His language is, at times, overwhelmingly theatrical (“That is why I am asking you in,” says Nancy at one point, resisting both contractions and naturalism), but his direction is flawless. He plays with light and dark endlessly, showing Worricker sitting in the dark in his apartment with only the glow of a laptop on his face, or Worricker alone at MI5 after hours, sitting in the lonely beam from an overhead fluorescent bulb. Most scenes are set at dusk, in darkness, or under grey, gloomy English skies, as if to convey the furtive nature of Worricker’s job, and how lonely it can be.
Unlikely though it may be, the spy Worricker seems to have the most in common with is Jason Bourne, even though one’s a killing machine and the other is, to put it gently, not. But both have been rejected by the institutions that raised and molded them, and both are intent on stamping out corruption because of some innate moral code—the kind that can’t be bought off, or scared into submission. Nighy would be worth watching if he were reading the phone book in an empty room for an hour and a half, but as the uneasy, weary Worricker, he’s just exquisite.