Preview Tonight’s Masterpiece Contemporary: Page Eight

The new season of Masterpiece Contemporary kicks off tonight at 9pm with a star-studded, twisty spy drama called Page Eight. The cast list is impressive – Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes, Judy Davis, Michael Gambon and more – and reason enough on its own for you to tune-in, but Page Eight is also a cracking good drama that’s much more focused on character than it is about the traditional trappings of spy films. (Nothing blows up and no one waves a gun at anything.)

Page Eight has a similar feel to some of the other conspiracy-themed dramas that have been popping up in recent years. If you’ve enjoyed Homeland, Rubicon, State of Play, or any of their ilk, you’ll like Page Eight. It’s familiar enough to fall into easily, but the story still feels fresh, despite the fact that “Higher Ups in Government Hide Information From General Public” is not exactly a new tale.

Watch a preview to get a feel for the film, and then click through for some (spoiler-free!) thoughts!

The premise of Page Eight is fairly straightforward. Bill Nighy is career MI-5 agent Johnny Warricker who is given a document by his boss/oldest friend Benedict Baron (played with fabulous snark by Michael Gambon) which has some incredibly damaging information at the bottom of the titular page eight. This document reveals that the Prime Minister has been involved in a fairly extensive cover-up of an international torture scandal that could seriously damage the government were it ever were to get out. Add in a potentially suspect neighbor, interdepartmental jockeying within MI-5 itself, a dash of family drama, and a meditation on how the responsibilities of government and the role of spycraft have changed since the advent of the War on Terror, and it’s pretty easy to not notice two hours go by.

The best thing about Page Eight is simply that its cast is so all around excellent. Not that this should surprise most of you, because there are so many heavy hitters here.  Bill Nighy is fantastic in the lead role, as a spy who excels by being an observant pusher of paper and peddler of information. He’s both tremendously charming and yet strangely haunted, and always seems to project the sense that he knows his world has somehow changed around him and that perhaps so has his place in it. His early scenes with Michael Gambon and Judy Davis, as we see that Johnny and Benedict are elder statesmen in an organization that doesn’t agree with the way they conduct business anymore, are particularly excellent. But even the smaller roles, down to Johnny’s angsty daughter (Felicity Jones) and one-in-a-long-line-apparently of ex-wives (Alice Krige) are all top-notch.

Ralph Fiennes is particularly worthy of a shoutout for his turn as the slightly menacing Prime Minister who insists that the world has changed and we, as a people, much change with it, to protect some nebulous idea of “Freedom.” Fiennes and Nighy actually only share one scene together, but it’s probably the best scene in the film. Rachel Weisz is the only performer who occasionally feels out of place, which isn’t so much the actress’s doing as it is the result of a slightly confusing arc for her character. Her Nancy works much better when the focus is on the tension between her budding friendship with Johnny and the fact that we’re not exactly sure what her motives are or whether she can be trusted.

The writing here is also particularly excellent. The script is by David Hare, also the writer of the screenplays for The Hours and The Reader.  Hare is a playwright by trade and it shows - the dialogue here is wonderful. Exposition is deftly handled, you get insights into characters’ relationships and histories together in a way that doesn’t roadblock the rest of the story, and there’s a fair amount of humor sprinkled in.  There are a few too many moments where the discussion devolves into a discussion about whether or not torture is an acceptable business for a modern government to sanction, given the changing nature of warfare, but it’s always thoughtful, if a bit repetitive. The ending is interesting – it’s almost a bit too pat given that the rest of the production doesn’t shy away from bringing up thorny and complex issues, yet still bittersweet at the same time. We watch Johnny come to terms with the fact that the world he so excelled in has largely left him behind, and it’s great to watch him embrace his better angels, but it would be lovely to get more of a hint at what the next phase of his life would look like.