PBS // 2011 // 105 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // November 8th, 2011
These are volatile times.
If you're looking for a high energy, James Bond style spy antics, the world of Masterpiece Contemporary is probably not where you want to look. There are no crazy supervillains or exotic locales in Page Eight, a new thriller from the Masterpiece Contemporary collection, but there are some fantastic performances from a stellar cast and a tight story. It's dry, British espionage that is a completely satisfying experience completely worthy of the Masterpiece moniker.
Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy, Shaun of the Dead)is an intelligence analyst for the MI-5 division of the British secret service, an aging bureaucrat who has worked under his best friend, Benedict (Michael Gambon, The Book of Eli), for decades. When a source reveals some highly sensitive, politically destructive information to Benedict, he shares it with Johnny, but dies suddenly soon after. Now, with this on his head, Johnny must deal with the issue himself, but his instinct to question everything he sees reveals even larger layers of cover-up that threatens the entire secret service.
Page Eight is much more John Le Carré than Ian Fleming, but that doesn't make the story any less entertaining; it just comes from the plotting instead of the action. This is the kind of spy story without gunplay or explosions. It focuses on the characters and their interrelations, the politics of working for MI-5, and the severity of the allegations to give the plot its weight. In all of this, the film is very successful.
Johnny likes working with his friend on something he finds important, but he's old and weary, tired of the game and the shambles it has made of his personal life. After five failed marriages and a daughter he still conflicts with, he just wants some peace. Instead of that, he gets this top secret file. While the contents are too significant to ignore, he doesn't want the responsibility; he already carries enough secrets. This is made doubly bad with Benedict's demise. Not only does he have to grieve his oldest friend, he also now has the sole duty to report the allegations, putting him in hotter water than he wants to handle. On top of this, he has to handle the oncoming advances of his pretty young neighbor (Rachel Weisz, The Fountain), who Johnny thinks might have an agenda connected to the file that he holds.
Together, this makes for a brisk and entertaining ride through the offices of the secret service. It's not as far reaching as many spy films out there, but its mundane scenario is considerably more believable than any of those. Writer and director David Hare (Strapless and the screenwriter for The Hours) does a solid job orchestrating the action and story, which focuses on the modern issues that the secret service will have to contend with. There's no seething maniac plotting to take over the world, but a smarmy Prime Minister and sellout bureaucrats who want to get in the way of the truth. This is a tale of truth in government and that government's efforts to advert the transparency they claim is important...until it gets them in trouble, at which point a lack of transparency becomes a matter of national security and, as such, an unquestionable issue.
The direction doesn't feature a lot of flair, but the performances are phenomenal. Nighy gives Worricker life just in how tired he looks. He's especially great in his moments of action, where the character clearly doesn't want to be. Nighy is perfect at showing both the character's reluctance to act and his determination to do the right thing. He's an analyst and feels more of an obligation to his dead friend than to his government or the advancement of his position. He is completely effective and makes the character very real. That doesn't discount the rest of the cast, which is excellent in every respect. Weisz is irresistibly mysterious and Gambon is basically a perfect boss. Beyond them, though, we have some great work from Ralph Fiennes (The Constant Gardener), Judy Davis (Naked Lunch), and Ewen Bremner (Trainspotting), together making a terrific ensemble that works together really well. When such a great cast mixes with a smart and fun plot, you can't really go wrong.
Page Eight comes to us from PBS, labeled as the Original UK Edition. I take this means the film is uncut, which would make sense given the brief moments of adult language would almost certainly have been cut in the American broadcast. The image is good, but not superior. The 1080i transfer looks fine for what it is, but there isn't the level of detail I've become used to on Blu-ray. It's clean, though, with solid colors and fairly deep blacks, so I can't complain too much, but it isn't as good as it could be. The stereo mix performs similarly. Everything is crisp and clear, but the dialog-heavy track doesn't have much separation and the score by Paul Englishby (An Education) is very much on the soft side. There are no extras on the disc, which brings it down an extra notch.
It's a little harder to fully recommend a purchase of Page Eight without a tip-top Blu-ray release, but the story and especially the performances make up for almost all of it. David Hare has discussed the possibility of bringing the Johnny Worricker character back for two more television dramas, and I really hope he does. People who enjoy a nice dry spy formula should do themselves a favor and pick up this disc, at least as a rental.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated