This weekend some if you will get to see a terrific new British drama about spies, politics, corruption, loyalty and revenge. And well-mannered thugs. Stuff like that. The drama was the closing-night gala at the Toronto International Film Festival this year and I met the main forces behind it. More on that later.
It's Page Eight (Sunday, Masterpiece Contemporary, PBS, 9 p.m.), and it will air on most PBS stations. Some are holding it for the following week. Written and directed by David Hare, the drama is about one Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy) a veteran MI5 officer. He's going about his business, quietly, doing what his bosses want and putting his personal life to one side. And it's a messy personal life. His ex became involved with his boss and friend Benedict Baron (Michael Gambon). Baron dies and as a result Johnny finds himself in possession of a secret file that, if accurate, is toxic material. It suggests that a senior British government figure rolled over and allowed the United States to do terrible things in its war on terror.
Worried about the info he has, Johnny is a bit paranoid. He's deeply suspicious when his new next-door neighbour Nancy (Rachel Weisz) becomes friendly. Especially when he discovers she has a past as a political activist. Johnny must decide how to handle the secret he's been given. Should he save or destroy his long career, and should he accept the seemingly welcome arms of Nancy? Thing happen of the quiet cloak-and-dagger kind, climaxing in a brutal encounter with the British Prime Minister (Ralph Fiennes).
Hare's work here, like many of his plays – Plenty, A Map of the World, Pravda, Stuff Happens – is sharply political and deeply skeptical of the official truths that governments propagate. And like many of his screenplays – The Hours, The Corrections, The Reader – it's incisive about human loyalty and our convenient delusions. The first of a proposed three-part series about the same characters, Page Eight broods on how much government integrity was erased by the war on terror, and how decent, essentially conservative people can cope with a new reality.
Nighy, familiar from the Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter movies, is in tremendous form here. His ability to be a coiled figure of strength and simultaneously fragile (something he did also did superbly in The Girl in the Café) is outstanding. His Johnny is the epitome of old-fashioned English decency, a decency on the verge of extinction. Weisz's role is tricky – her character is an elusive figure and the delicate-as-old-china romance between her and Nighy is a subdued thing.
Page Eight is a thriller for grownups, thoughtful and tense entertainment that rewards those paying attention. In September I met Hare and Nighy for a chat during TIFF. Hare (who was knighted, and is officially Sir David Hare) is a cheerful, engaging man, anxious to talk up Page Eight, the politics of it and the state of television. Nighy is a shy man at first, charming though, and on the day I met him, impeccably dressed in a suit and tie. He's less interested in talking politics than he is in the pleasures of acting in Hare's work.
I first asked Hare which British prime minister the terrifyingly ruthless PM in Page Eight is based on. He laughed, at first.
"It's an amalgam, I suppose. Ralph Fiennes asked me the same question when he read it, but I left it unexplained. Interestingly, I think Ralph used the body language of Vladimir Putin to express that physical presence the character puts forward."
About the connection to real events, especially the Blair government's acceptance of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Hare is less equivocal. "What happened obviously, is that Tony Blair said to MI5 (the secular, internal counterintelligence branch) and MI6 (the foreign-threat branch) that he wanted to see evidence of the weapons. He didn't want analysis. He wanted evidence. It was a game. As I understand it, MI6 came and presented evidence and MI5, to its credit, said it couldn't provide evidence. That put the spies in a very tricky position. They had crossed the prime minister. That makes life difficult for them."
I also asked Hare about doing Page Eight for TV. He hasn't directed for film or TV in years. "When I wrote it I was presented with a conundrum. The producers said, 'If you want to do it as a movie, we'll do it but it will take years.' So when I agreed to do it for TV, the inevitable answer was, 'Why don't you do three or six with the same characters?' We shot this in five weeks for about $3-million. It's very important to me that Page Eight is at the Toronto Festival. I want it seen on the big screen, in the context of full-length films"
On the matter of playing a spy, a figure very much like the doleful spies of John Le Carré's world, Nighy said, "I've read everything that John LeCarré has written. I'm fascinated by the subject of spying, and I've always wanted to play one. I got to smoke in the rain, in the dark on Battersea Bridge. It's something I've always wanted to do on camera. It looks great!"
It was a very pleasant chat, merely summarized here. Hare told me he admires much of what is happening in American TV, especially the HBO series, but said he longed for a truly great movie-for-TV made in the same style. He threw up his hands on the state of the BBC.
Nighy I knew to be a great soccer man and, I discovered, a very astute and learned commentator on soccer. When I asked him about the state of things in television, he said he didn't watch much but also said, "When I hear the theme music to the Champions League, I am at peace." Then he winked at me. As charming as Johnny in Page Eight.
Check local listings.