Completing the Worricker Trilogy that began with the 2011 movie “Page Eight,” PBS’ Masterpiece Contemporary offers back-to-back films featuring Bill Nighy as world-weary spy Johnny Worricker: “Turks & Caicos” and “Salting the Battlefield.” “All-star cast” is an overused term but, taking both movies into account, damned if it doesn’t apply, with Christopher Walken, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Winona Ryder and Judy Davis among those enlisting in writer-director David Hare’s cerebral and decidedly jaundiced spin on the efficacy of the War on Terror, which despite leisurely pacing and inordinately long, talky scenes, nevertheless proves totally absorbing.
In terms of tone, there’s more Raymond Chandler than John Le Carre in these understated surroundings, where never a shot is fired nor punch thrown. Hare’s theatrical background also reveals itself in the long rat-a-tat exchanges between characters, although when those scenes comprise Nighy riffing with Christopher Walken, it’s remarkable just how entertaining two guys in comfy chairs can be.
Having viewed “Page Eight” is helpful but hardly compulsory to enjoy the sequels, which begin with former MI5 operative Worricker lounging on a beach in Turks & Caicos (whose tourism bureau should send the production a large fruit basket), having been forced by his old-fashioned principles into exile by his own government.
Worricker has an assumed name, and presents himself as a retired civil servant from the department of fisheries (“I know a lot about cod,” he says dryly), but given his lavish environs, people are understandably skeptical.
Soon enough, he’s invited to drinks by Walken’s shadowy businessman and an equally mysterious publicist (Ryder), drawing him into an espionage plot surrounding misdirected funds from the War on Terror that representatives of the U.S. government would very much like to recover, seeking Worricker’s help in a manner that’s more ultimatum than request.
Yes, there’s an offscreen murder that figures into the narrative, but Hare is more preoccupied with the moral compromises engineered in response to the terrorism threat, augmented by all the profits to be made from it. As a consequence, the islands where Worricker has taken refuge are merely “a home for dirty money,” while Judy Davis’ government official concedes in the follow-up, “It used to be very clear who the enemy was,” but not so much anymore.
It gives away little to say Worricker’s actions in “Turks & Caicos” force him to go on the run in “Salting the Battlefield,” accompanied by another ex-spy as well as his former lover, played by Bonham Carter. His activities, meanwhile, continue to nettle the Prime Minister (Fiennes), whose determination to protect the country raises troubling questions — as familiar in the U.S. as they are in the U.K. — about sacrifices in the name of security.
Hare isn’t above mounting a soapbox to convey these points, but happily, his surrogates are so articulate and witty — beginning with Nighy, whose voice seldom rises above a soothing whisper — that the lecture goes down smoothly, and the story progresses from one movie into the next as an almost seamless thread.
In the press materials, Hare is quoted as saying his approach to the movies was that “heavy subject matter should be presented very lightly,” while seeking to impress the view that the intelligence apparatus is “out of control.”
The filmmaker’s politics won’t appeal to everyone, and will probably reinforce perceptions of PBS as a liberal mouthpiece. In terms of Hare’s objective, though, there’s no irony in saying, “Mission accomplished.”