Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy) is a senior analyst with MI-5 and best friends with the Director General, Benedict (Michael Gambon). When the DG receives proof that the Americans have torture sites around Europe, they have to deal with it. It’s not clear who the source is or what the DG is up to and when he dies, Johnny is left with a copy of the file and no obvious course of action. All that’s clear is that everyone has an agenda, especially fellow MI-5 officer Jill Tankard (Judy Davis). Meanwhile, a beautiful young woman, Nancy Pierpan (Rachel Weisz) has moved in across the hall and her sudden interest in Johnny is suspicious.
Written and directed by David Hare, Page Eight (2011) is a spy thriller in the way that The Ides of March (2011) was a political thriller. There is no real mystery, there is no real threat, basically there’s an awkward situation and it has to be dealt with. The only mystery elements occur because Johnny doesn’t see fit to let us know what’s happening. It’s not a hard and fast requirement that the characters on screen be roughly as ignorant as the audience, but if they aren’t ignorant, they’d better well do something with the information.
The problem with Page Eight is that I’m pretty sure that Johnny is as ignorant as we are at many points, but doesn’t make it very clear what he doesn’t know or how he came about solving the puzzle. The main mystery is why this information is so damaging. The next question is why people are pushing Johnny around. This “old school,” class conflict business isn’t really washing as the whole truth. Then we also would like to know what the DG was up to and whether things get much deeper. The thing is, about a half hour in, without actually realizing it, we know everything there is to know about the main mystery. The stakes are clear. And yet, the movie is all about the stakes. Over and over we’re reminded of the stakes.
Why are people pushing him around? Well, I now know the answer to that question. How did Johnny figure this out? As far as I can tell, he guessed. How did he figure out the DG’s plan? As far as I can tell, he guessed. Both guesses coming out in the last five minutes. In the meantime, he bounds around like a spy talking to people who don’t seem to give him much information—not clues, mind just information on what I believe to be the subplot or reiterations of the stakes. His conversation with the Prime Minister (Ralph Fiennes) gives him the concrete political stakes, and that’s the sexiest bit in the whole movie.
Nighy is a magnetic presence and makes the whole thing watchable. I waited for everything to unfold, and it didn’t so much unfold as snap into shape, but I still basically enjoyed myself. I expected a complicated plot so much that its non-complexity just made non-ambiguous events seem ambiguous. A nice double-fake. The whole movie is a double-fake. But they’re spies and they’re British, and I’m a total sucker for that sort of thing.
I borrowed it from the library, so I don’t feel cheated. I believe this is also available on Netflix. Check it out, but just expect a fun ride without an exciting destination.