David Hare returns to the director’s chair with “Page Eight,” a quality slice of TV spy drama that premiered in Edinburgh ahead of its tube transmission on PBS “Masterpiece” Stateside and the BBC in Blighty. A classy lineup of predominately Brit actors, plus the enduring reputation of the veteran Oscar-nominated adapter of “The Hours” and “The Reader,” will be the chief selling points for a character-driven, London-set fiction that’s big on intrigue but low on thrills.
Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy, also an exec producer) is an art-collecting, jazz-loving, several-times-divorced intelligence officer for MI5. Benedict Baron (Michael Gambon) is his best friend, boss, mentor and, cozily, the current husband of Johnny’s first wife (Alice Krige).
Pic’s inciting incident is a meet-cute between Johnny and his enigmatic neighbor Nancy Pierpan (Rachel Weisz), a left-leaning book editor bent on learning the truth about the killing of her brother by Israeli forces in the Occupied Territories. The next key development is the emergence of a classified report suggesting the British prime minister (Ralph Fiennes, channeling Tony Blair in sinister mode) has been receiving private intelligence from the U.S., extracted under torture, that has not been shared with the nation’s security services.
Other players in the game include an aggressive MI5 colleague (Judy Davis), an amusingly combative British home secretary (Saskia Reeves), Johnny’s artist daughter Julianne (Felicity Jones), a gay Financial Times journalist with links to the secret services (Ewen Bremner), and a creepy Internet entrepreneur (Tom Hughes) whose social circle coincidentally includes both Nancy and Julianne.
Over the course of much pithy dialogue, delivered with evident enjoyment by this tony cast, it’s revealed that Worricker is skeptical about the so-called “special relationship” between the two transatlantic allies, that dark forces are circling to pull him down, and that his romantic nature may inspire him to commit one last defiant, unselfish act. However, the action unfolds within an endearingly British prism: The grizzled protag is in danger of losing his pension, rather than his life. Any amorous tension between decades-apart Johnny and Nancy is thankfully underplayed.
While plowing some of the same territory as Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer,” “Page Eight” suffers in comparison, not just in terms of the scale of the jeopardy, but also in the revelations that emerge. No one will be very surprised by Hare’s suggestion that the U.S. runs black sites for the interrogation of renditioned suspects on foreign soil, or that the British premier might put his belief in “shared values” with his ally ahead of his duty to obey his own country’s laws.
Moreover, despite a car-radio news report of the Arab Spring, presumably dropped in late in the day to signal contemporary relevance, there’s nothing terribly new or urgent about “Page Eight.” In fact, the association with PBS “Masterpiece” seems no coincidence: Hare’s film plays out like an enjoyably upscale British period drama that just happens to be set in 2011.