A spy thriller, without the self-importance

David Hare’s Page Eight tried to Say Something Important, and it was all the better for having failed to do so.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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Since 2001, the spy genre has had to get real. With 9/11, 7/7 and the advent of the ‘war on terror’, people in the West felt vulnerable for the first time in a while. As a result, filmmakers became apprehensive about caricaturing conflicts which the public perceived as genuine threats to their lives and adopted a more realist approach. In short, James Bond had to surrender the keys to his amphibious Aston Martin.

Page Eight, which was broadcast on BBC2 last Sunday, is a film which represents this shift in the spy genre. Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy) is an old-school spy who has become disillusioned with the dubious principles of twenty-first-century politics. After the death of his friend and mentor, Benedict Baron (Michael Gambon), he is left with a mysterious file which threatens to unearth Downing Street’s dirty dealings. Realising that there are few people he can trust, Worricker is forced to go it alone in order to find out the truth behind the eighth page of the file. While it sounds like pretty heavy stuff, this film does something which the new breed of realist spy flicks finds very difficult: it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Despite not having written and directed a feature for 14 years, it is a testament to David Hare’s reputation that this project has attracted some of Britain’s most accomplished actors. If Nighy and Gambon weren’t enough, Rachel Weisz appears as Worricker’s love interest Nancy Pierpan, and shady prime-minister Alec Beasley is played by Ralph Fiennes. There is no denying the dramatic pedigree of these actors, but Hare’s wry script also demands a good deal of levity, as the film’s weighty content is constantly countered by humour.

In the opening sequence we see a suited Nighy strolling through the streets of south London. He is smoking and smooth jazz is playing in the background. Yet when he arrives at the door of his swanky Battersea flat, any initial slickness is punctured, as he bumps into his neighbour, Nancy, and engages in a highly awkward conversation about taking the bins out.

Nighy’s deadpan delivery creates some very funny moments. So funny, in fact, that at times the film feels like it’s about to descend into complete farce. However, while this mocking tone leaves one unsure as to whether to believe in these characters or not, this saves Page Eight from being just another gritty spy drama. Not only does it lighten the mood, but it gives the characters idiosyncrasies and depth, allowing them to function as more than mere vehicles for boorish twists and turns.

Now that the gadgets are gone, spy films have become increasingly reliant on complex, fast-paced story lines. This film, on the other hand, unfurls in a languid manner, allowing the characters to take centre stage. Johnny Worricker’s life is full of strained relationships and this is explored with subtlety and tenderness. Hare seems to understand the value of silence as well as speech, and the script’s delicacy combined with Nighy’s poker-faced performance creates some muted yet very moving scenes.

The modern film audience has become more and more uncomfortable with fantasy. Even the most outlandish of movie franchises, from Batman to Bond, have been rebooted and rationalised in order to fit this new demographic. Given its close relationship to issues of national security, the spy genre has been particularly affected, leading it to strive for greater realism and geopolitical meaning. Page Eight is very much a part of this trend, and as with many other films of its type, it fails to reach the levels of significance it aspires to. Hare intends to explore the murky values of twenty-first-century politics, but provides about as much insight as an episode of Spooks. However, its failure to be a gritty, political thriller is both its defining feature and its saving grace.

Page Eight was a funny, subdued and leisurely watch. It was everything it shouldn’t have been, and all the better for it.

Tom Slater is a writer and a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy. He is currently interning at spiked. Visit his blog here.

David Bowden is away.

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