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.