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The Establishment Club


Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011

"Page Eight" feels like a throwback to an earlier, wordier kind of British spy drama, the kind in which M.I.5 bristles inwardly over not knowing all the facts and character actors from the Commonwealth arrive in shifts to deal with double agents over a double brandy. In short it feels like a slice of quality BBC television, and with good reason.

Marking David Hare's return to directing full-length feature films after many years, "Page Eight" has faith in the subtle powers of actors such as Bill Nighy, Judy Davis and Alice Krige to convey annoyance about a broken paper trail with a glance or anxiety over familial strife with a sigh. As long as your requirements of an espionage story don't insist on something blowing up, all this is very refreshing.

It's certainly something of a masterclass from Mr. Nighy, who is present in practically every scene and whose dry delivery and finely cut suits quickly signpost everything about the character of M.I.5 analyst Johnny Worricker and define the personality of the whole film. "Page Eight" loves Johnny Worricker because Mr. Hare loves what Mr. Nighy can do with his voice and his body to convey world-weary honor among dishonorable men; and the actor is in supremely relaxed form.

If anything, the film could do with unrelaxing a notch. It's not that its concerns are small-scale or untopical: The plot revolves around extraordinary rendition, the state of the Atlantic alliance and the dubious principles of the British prime minister, which — since he's played by Ralph Fiennes as a bulletheaded bully — are dubious indeed. But these are open goals for a liberal-leaning drama to take pot-shots at; and the director opts to cut broadly but not deep.

"Page Eight" is part-funded by the BBC and destined for a high-profile outing on British television and feels entirely at home in the network's tradition of expertly crafted, sedate and not especially cinematic dramas about harassed spooks. Alec Guinness as George Smiley is still the zenith of this species some three decades after the fact; and although Smiley never managed to trip as lightly as Johnny Worricker, the common marital tangles and air of mildly stewed bemusement make the two seem very kindred. An intelligence analyst might draw a conclusion about the state of Britain's civil servants, or at least about the art of portraying them.


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