Page Eight, written and directed by David Hare and currently available on BBC iPlayer, demonstrates just how inadequate bite size labels like “spy thriller” can be. In a story that lasts one hour and forty minutes on screen, we are never truly thrilled or excited by events. This is not an all action look at MI5, such as Spooks, but a strangely amusing study of character and bureaucracy.
The whole thing is bookended by cool, retro jazz and Bill Nighy strutting around in a suit. But whilst Nighy’s character Johnny does have an expensive, privileged and high flying lifestyle, and he does look charismatically assured for someone in his early sixties, Page Eight isn’t a tale that glamorises the intelligence community much either. In the opening twenty minutes we meet Johnny’s key work colleagues and observe his solitary home life. He could be working in any public office for a living. But for the shots of Thames House, familiar to Spooks fans and spy buffs, there isn’t a lot to mark him out as an “intelligence analyst”.
The plot basically has two strands. Early on Johnny meets his neighbour from across the hall for the first time. Played by Rachel Weisz she may or may not be interested in him for devious reasons relating to his work. She might just be lonely. Meanwhile at work Johnny’s friend and boss Ben (Michael Gambon) has passed a potentially explosive file around. At the bottom of page eight a casual sentence from an unknown source drops the bombshell that Downing Street knew about information extracted by the Americans through torture, and decided not to share it with the security services. Ben then dies of a heart attack.
Page Eight’s overwhelming quality is intrigue. The two plots grow more complicated and intermingle, as we learn about Johnny’s messy personal life with his daughter and former lovers, all strained by his tendency to suspect everyone and always remain on guard. Nighy is excellent and Gambon delivers his lines with comic relish. A meeting with the Home Secretary about a top secret subject, surely a tense situation, turns out to be a hilarious platform for Nighy and Gambon’s playful chemistry, as well as advancement of the plot. Indeed the entire cast is impressive. James Bond fans can rub their hands together with glee as potential Bond 23 villain Ralph Fiennes pulls off a sinister Prime Minister.
Aside from the drama, Page Eight also has some interesting and thought provoking points to make. Despite its heightened elements of collusion and conspiracy, it feels oddly accurate and close to the world we live in. It simultaneously takes a swipe at the consequences of elitism, the implications of everyone important graduating from the same Oxbridge college, and defends fading ideals of honour espoused by such institutions. Most revealingly of all it highlights the conflict between those who believe in “pure intelligence” delivering facts and the challenges of too much information in the modern world, requiring interpretation, perhaps for political gain, as opposed to searching for impossible truths.
Overall Page Eight is an intelligent and satisfying watch. Somehow Hare wraps everything up in a flash, just as it seems time will run out on the plot. The dialogue is delightful in the hands of veteran performers and refreshingly free of exposition, apart from a few clunky lines for Weisz. Best of all is the characterisation of Johnny that focuses on the real, human results of spying. Just don’t expect stunts, guns, fight scenes or car chases.
If you’re a “regular reader”, if I have such a thing, then you think I’ve just gone mad. Christmas was over a month ago. And I’m only just getting round to recording my thoughts on last year’s festive offering from our favourite Timelord. But such is the magic of iplayer that I downloaded the fantastic episode immediately afterwards, with the intention of reviewing it, only to let it wither away. Now, with it about to die, I had to re-watch it before embarking on a trip abroad and sing its praises.
Because what Steven Moffat managed to do with this seasonal special is capture the sentimental essence of Christmas and cast a magical spell over Doctor Who again. Peppered with slick, funny, genius dialogue, A Christmas Carol was a marvellous reinvention of a classic, and an expression of a truly unique imagination. Fish that swim in the fog; how wonderfully original and unexpected and inexplicably Christmassy.
The problem in the end, with Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who, was that no matter how spectacular, the stories became predictable. In many ways Moffat’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol had expected elements, features expected at Christmas time. But the all important sci-fi, Whovian additions to the tale were quirky, creative and inventive. There was fantastic time-hopping which had gone missing from the Tardis until Moffat’s ascension to the throne. With all of time and space to choose from, one thing Doctor Who should never, ever be, is predictable.
This story had emotional heart as well as more laugh out loud lines, delivered by a superb Matt Smith who’s well and truly at home in the role now, than I can remember. They included though, the brilliant: “What’s it called when you have no feet and you’re taking a run-up?” and the Doctor’s advice for Kazran’s first kiss; “Try and be a bit rubbish and nervy and shaky…Because you’re gonna be like that anyway.”
Michael Gambon was excellent as the old miser transformed. Katherine Jenkins made an impressive acting debut, doing all that was required of her, including delivering some enchanting singing fit for the occasion. The music in general was wonderful. There were some impressive child performances. The script wasn’t always spot-on, with there being some cheesy, ordinary lines, mainly during the sections with Amy Pond. The episode opened with the necessarily dramatic, but disappointing, “Christmas is cancelled!” The sublime moments more than make up for this though, including the Doctor in a white tux, fretting by a swimming pool about his impending engagement to Marilyn Monroe. Talk about conveying the glamour of time travel successfully on a budget.
This story is a showcase for so much. A lot of it very Christmassy stuff. The power of carols, the warming bitterness of thwarted love and memorable quotes; “halfway out of the dark”, “Time can be written, people can’t”, “Never met anyone who isn’t important before”. Wonderful plot twists like when the Doctor shows the young Kazran his older self. Most of all it’s an example of just how amazing Doctor Who can be on so many levels. All the superlatives I’m wheeling out don’t come close to expressing how good this episode was and how much I liked it, how much I loved it. The new series this year will be split into two and the opportunities for cliff-hangers and twists for Moffat will be unprecedented. I can’t wait to see what he does.
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It’s difficult to know what one’s destiny is; or if there is such a thing. Colin Firth for example seemed set to play bumbling Brits in silly rom-coms for all time, until the perfect, acclaimed home for his restrained emotion emerged in the form of firstly, a suicidal homosexual in Tom Ford’s sublime A Single Man and now spluttering monarch King “Bertie” George in Tom Hooper’s very regal Oscar contender, The King’s Speech. Helena Bonham Carter’s fate seemed to be mad eccentric types, inspired by her vicious turns as villainess Bellatrix in the Harry Potter franchise, only to find herself alongside Firth as the Queen Mum before she was quite Queen or indeed, merely a mother.
You’d think that at least in the Royal family destinies are clear; smooth processions along a plush red carpet blood line. But in the 1930s a scandalous affair and subsequent abdication crisis in the prelude to war meant that the poor old anxious Duke of York found himself stepping up to the throne ahead of time. The youth and popularity of his wild brother meant that he probably never foresaw himself taking on the big job. He certainly didn’t want it. And yet Guy Pearce’s Edward feels he simply must step aside if it means he can fulfil his love (or lust) for his American sweetheart.
Despite the sideshows of better known history, which adds sparkle and meaning to events, the heart of this film is the untold story of a King’s personal problems and his struggles to overcome them. Firth’s Duke of York has been struggling with a stammer for most of his life and the film begins as he and his wife seek treatment from various esteemed medics. His father, King George V played by Michael Gambon, has already noticed the wayward ways of Pearce’s Edward and starts pinning his hopes on the stuttering Bertie for a viable successor. However in the new age of radio, voice is everything for a monarch. Eventually the excellent, perfectly spoken Bonham Carter finds Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue for her husband and the film comes to life.
From their very first scene together, Rush and Firth captivate the audience. No matter what other merits The King’s Speech has as a film, you will always want the action to get the King and his speech therapist back in a room again, as no other scenes come close for simple enjoyment. That is not to say that the other actors don’t give wonderful performances; Bonham Carter, Pearce, Gambon and Spall are all spot-on. And there is drama and humour elsewhere. But the speech therapy is after all what the film is about despite all the other momentous events. It’s a very personal drama about the weight of expectation on one flawed individual, born and bred in a cotton ball world. The best of the humour from some magnificent lines in David Seidler’s script sparks rapidly in these intimate scenes too.
However I couldn’t help thinking at times during The King’s Speech that it simply wasn’t as funny for those of a younger generation. Sure it wasn’t the stuffy, serious costume drama I’d been expecting either. But the cinema was packed with the elderly and middle-aged who seemed to snigger at the slightest hint of cheek from Rush’s speech therapist, or the merest sniff of rage from Firth’s dignified Royal. Most of the humour in The King’s Speech is of this variety, with the silver haired audience exploding into laughter thinking “oh dear, imagine saying that to the Queen today”. I was inclined to look on the dialogue as clever and witty, rather than uproariously funny.
I did thoroughly enjoy The King’s Speech though. The period detail is predictably sumptuous and immersive. The script is not only lively and witty but gripping and concise. The cast are all superb. I disagree with the criticisms of some reviews that the film seems to conclude by saying the King’s personal triumph over his demons won Britain the war over Hitler. This movie simply isn’t telling that story. And the story it does tell is fresh, moving and engaging. It’s at its best when reduced to simple parts; a therapist, a patient and his troublesome speech. Firth proves once again he’s stepped up into serious Oscar worthy roles and breathes life into the British period drama. It’s worth seeing for some rare, theatre like scenes that give acting talent centre stage above all else.
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Tagged abdicate, acting, American, Bertie, Bonham-Carter, Churchill, clever, Colin, David, Edward, Firth, Gambon, Geoffrey, Guy, Helena, Hooper, King's, Lionel, Logue, Michael, Palace, Pearce, Royal, Rush, scandal, script, Seidler, Spall, speech, The, therapist, Timothy, Tom, Winston, witty