I had been looking forward to seeing “Page Eight”, the BBC film which garnered some good reviews earlier this summer in the British press when it premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and which aired last night on PBS’ “Masterpiece Contemporary”. With a cast of accomplished actors that includes Bill Nighy, Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, and Judy Davis, and a plot that promised to pit the different branches of British intelligence against each other, the package sounded too good to resist. Unfortunately, after unwrapping all of said package’s eye-catching trappings, one is left with something so utterly muted and boring, that one wonders how one is perceived in the eyes of the giver.
The somewhat complicated plot involves a memo in which we Yanks have been doing some rather bad things, and Downing Street is seeking to cover this up as it moves toward replacing MI-5 and MI-6 with something more akin to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The film then revolves around who is doing this, and why, and efforts to either release or stifle this information. Normally this would be a recipe for something at least marginally interesting. Unfortunately, from the get-go the film never really “goes”.
As is inevitably the case in these sorts of films, there is a great deal more talking than action, which is not necessarily a bad thing when it is handled well. The “House of Cards” series, for example, involved complicated political intrigue and lots of conversation, and never dragged in the way that “Page Eight” does. The languid pacing of people standing around, speaking sotto voce about how tired they are simply makes the viewer – or at least this one, at 9pm on a Sunday – rather tired himself.
When you have a cast of the quality of that assembled for a project like this, who are capable of some extraordinary feats of acting, creating this kind of group, it is hoped, will lead to fireworks on screen. Yet most of the actors here seem to be searching about for some sort of direction as to who exactly they are supposed to be. Michael Gambon is killed off fairly early on, regrettably, while Ralph Fiennes does what he usually does post-“Schindler’s List” which is to stand about trying to seem menacing – while looking more like he is about 5 foot 8 instead of his actual 6 feet tall.
Bill Nighy was more interesting as a vampire in “Underworld” than in this film, which he has to carry as the lead. The normally-adept Judy Davis can’t seem to decide which sort of British accent she wants to emulate from scene to scene, and sometimes from line to line. There is however, a beautifully shot sequence between the two of them which begins with Davis striding down a dark, London street in a scarlet coat, to meet Nighy in a restaurant for an incredibly tense conversation. Unfortunately there is not enough of that to keep either the actors or the viewers particularly interested in what happens next.
And then there is the dialogue, which is a mixed bag at best. Sometimes, the back-and-forth about politics and espionage starts to approach the level of crackle that you would hope for in a production of this quality, but just when you think they are about to pull something interesting into the film, it seems to fall back into soap opera writing.I quite literally winced at one point, when Rachel Weisz’ character turns to Bill Nighy’s and says, “I thought I’d never learn to feel again.” I had to double-check the clicker and make sure I was not watching an episode of “EastEnders”.
One of the more unappealing aspects of the plot was the film’s use of America as a kind of moral bogeyman.. On this side of the pond of course, particularly when filming a costume drama, we are not loathe to make the British the “bad guys”, as it were, thanks to that little unpleasantness after 1776. Yet generally speaking we do not make the British our enemies in our contemporary espionage films, but rather our allies – or at the very least our colleagues.
The fact that “Page Eight” paints Americans as being immoral, or at best amoral, and their influence as a corrupting one on the British government, is nothing new, for it has cropped up in a number of British films which I have seen in recent years. Indeed, even on my beloved television series “MI-5”, as the BBC’s “Spooks” is known in America, “The Cousins”, as the Americans are referred to, are more often treated as a potential threat rather than a helpful partner. Perhaps this is because Britain’s influence in the world is not what it was, and so certain British filmmakers feel that this is the only way they have to combat what they perceive as being America’s bad influence on their own country. And perhaps because this was a film made for a British audience, rather than an American one, it would hardly be right for me, as a non-Brit, to complain about this plot device: but there it is, all the same.
The tricky part of doing an ensemble cast of highly-skilled actors in any film, it seems to me, is to make sure that they all balance each other out so that everyone gets to shine, rather than one or two eclipsing the others, or everyone going at it in a free-for-all trying to out-do one another. Unfortunately in this film, whether because of the sluggish plotline or the sometimes chuckle-worthy dialogue, this brilliant group of players seems wasted, lost in a kind of gray funk on screen from which they can never emerge. And while there may be the occasional flicker of interest or intrigue, by the end one simply does not care what happens to any of these people, which is why the piece fails.