Speaking of imports, Masterpiece's bracing British fare -- 'Downton Abbey,' 'Case Histories,' 'Page Eight' and 'The Song of Lunch,' which arrives Nov. 13 -- isn't just enjoyable on its own terms; it proves HBO doesn't have a monopoly on handsomely crafted movies and miniseries.
As for 'Page Eight' (PBS Masterpiece Sunday, check local listings), this enjoyable Bill Nighy espionage movie should also be on the radar of people who enjoyed AMC's 'Rubicon' or the previous Nighy vehicle 'State of Play' (a great 2003 miniseries that BBC America will re-air Dec. 7). Then again, you don't have to be a particular fan of spy fare or Nighy to enjoy 'Page Eight,' which is full of the kind of proven British acting talent that makes the whole venture worthwhile.
In this well-constructed drama, Ralph Fiennes plays a U.K. prime minister who looks and acts the part but is full of vaguely menacing aggression; Rachel Weisz is the possibly suspect neighbor of Nighy's character, career MI-5 agent Johnny Warricker; the great Michael Gambon plays Warricker's avuncular, razor-sharp boss, Benedict Baron; Judy Davis co-stars as a sharp-elbowed colleague and Alice Krige is Nighy's prickly ex-wife (one of them, anyway).
I'd happily watch this cast read the phone book, but fortunately the script by David Hare (who also directed) is intelligent, engaging and generally makes good use of this singular cast's talents. Through expertly handled exposition, we gradually learn that Baron and Warricker are involved in a high-stakes game of chicken with the government. They've learned damning information about how the war on terror is being conducted in the U.K., and, by the second half of the 100-minute film, danger lurks around every corner.
But this is no a 'Bourne'-like thriller. 'Page Eight' is more a study of one man's struggle to continue to believe that his job has rules and meaning, and Hare never forgets that two people talking in a quiet room can be fascinating, provided the right performers are speaking the right kind of dialogue. There's a confrontation between Fiennes' prime minister and Nighy's character that is as full of crackling tension as a really good chase scene; these actors go at each other like fully armed thespian ninjas, and it's a delight to watch.
I've recently discovered the critical stylings of an online writer who goes by the name FilmCritHulk, and if you can get past the all-caps writing on his posts (and it's worth the effort to do so), he has some interesting thoughts on what makes 'Downton Abbey' and British dramas in general work so well. In Hulk's view, these stories often revolve around the characters' restraint and the promise of that restraint finally being loosened. 'Page Eight,' which brims with nicely calibrated restraint, certainly works in that regard, and Nighy is particularly well-suited to the kind of storytelling that telegraphs both repression and possible abandon.
Something antic and wild lurks inside Nighy; you can sense it in his snaky line-readings and his slightly evasive presence. Just when you think you have his characters pinned down, they slip away behind a secretive, mildly amused facade. As he did in 'State of Play,' Nighy excels at assuming the mantle of a powerful man who wears his influence lightly, but part of his charisma derives from his capacity for mischievousness. There are elements of melancholy and caution in Johnny, but like many of Nighy's other characters, he lives life on his own terms and is quite capable of enjoying himself, should the opportunity arise.
But Johnny's profession has clearly taken a toll on his ability to trust, and like 'Homeland' and 'Rubicon,' 'Page Eight' intelligently explores the burdens carried by people whose jobs force them to live with difficult knowledge. That's not to say 'Page Eight' is a downer -- far from it -- but this film give us an unsentimental yet realistic view of the price paid by those protecting us from real and confounding evils.
There are elements of 'Page Eight' that would have benefited from a more time and exploration; Johnny's relationship with his artist daughter and the sub-plot about his neighbor both seem a little thinner than they should be. Also, the film's conclusion presents a false choice that is less nuanced than what came before it. Still, this small gem of a film manages to be a finely drawn character piece and a searching exploration of what powerful people will (and won't) do to keep their countries safe, and it provides some great actors with meaty roles along the way.
Notes: 'Page Eight' will be online at the Masterpiece site on Nov. 7. 'Case Histories,' a good three-part detective series starring Jason Isaacs, is online there until Nov. 29. And if you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and record 'State of Play' (the 2003 miniseries, not the Russell Crowe film) when BBC America re-airs it starting Dec. 7. It stars Nighy, Kelly Macdonald, James McAvoy, David Morrissey, John Simm and Polly Walker. It's very good; I wrote more about it here.
By the way, Alan Sepinwall was the first to make the observation that between 'Page Eight' and 'The Song of Lunch,' which airs Nov. 13 on Masterpiece, half the adult cast of the Harry Potter films will be on our TVs this month. (I haven't seen 'Lunch,' which airs Nov. 13, but it stars Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman as former flames, so it's surely worth a look.).
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