Friday, November 04, 2011

Page Eight: Bill Nighy the Anti-American Guy

MI5 senior analyst Johnny Worricker is appalled his agency could not prevent the7/7 London bombings, so he will do everything he can to hamstring its intelligence gathering process. He harbors deep anti-American sentiments, because of their perceived reluctance to share information, but every action he takes justifies that distrust. Yet he lays the sole claim to the moral high ground in David Hare’s decidedly polemical Page Eight (trailer here), which airs this coming Sunday on PBS’s Masterpiece Contemporary.

Take a look at this file and be sure to read the bottom of page eight MI5 Director Benedict Barron tells Worricker. That is the part that off-handedly mentions the Prime Minister has been fully apprised of the secret American rendition centers covertly operating throughout Europe. Old school chums, Barron trusts Worricker more than anyone. After all, Barron married one of the analyst’s many ex-wives. However, Worricker is not sure what sort of game his boss is playing when he reveals the report to the cravenly political Home Secretary.

Simultaneously, Worricker finds himself embroiled in another small intrigue involving his young neighbor, Nancy Pierpan, whose Rachel Corrie-inspired brother was surely killed by the Israelis. As an old Arabist government bureaucrat, Worricker is ripe for her tale of injustice, despite his pretenses of world weary cynicism. At least he has good taste in music, turning Pierpan onto the recordings of Lester Young and Billie Holiday.

Frankly, Page Eight’s politics are about as subtle as an avalanche. Writer-director Hare might be best known for penning the screenplay for Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, in which a former concentration camp guard is portrayed as a sensitive and vulnerable figure, while a Holocaust survivor is depicted as a mean cold shrew. Indeed, Page Eight seems to continue a troubling pattern in Hare’s work, dismissing the mass murder of thousands of innocent Israelis as a trifling matter, but considering the bulldozing of a house in Gaza a human tragedy of cosmic proportions.

Bill Nighy is absolutely pitch-perfect as the Worricker, reveling in his curmudgeonly sophistication. Still, in a strange way, it follows in line with the admittedly sillier Wild Target, putting Nighy’s character in a weirdly sexualized surrogate-father relationship with a woman maybe a third of his age. As Pierpan, Rachel Weisz seems to be playing a character that only exists to express moral indignation. However, Michael Gambon is once again compulsively watchable as the gruff but incisive Barron, while Ralph Fiennes is suitably inscrutable as PM Alec Beasley.

In its defense, Page Eight has a look worthy of a feature film, totally nailing the George Smiley vibe. Paul Englishby’s jazz and jazz-inspired score is also quite stylish and entertaining. Unfortunately, these efforts are undermined by the film’s didacticism. Not simply distracting, it literally dictates where the story must go, thereby sabotaging any sense of surprise. A disappointing programming choice for Masterpiece Contemporary, Page Eight airs on most PBS outlets this Sunday (11/6).