An all-star cast and a taut teleplay by one of England's greatest living writers launch a new season of PBS' "Masterpiece Contemporary" with the spy drama "Page Eight" on Sunday, Nov. 6 (check local listings).
Written and directed by David Hare, whose screenplay adaptations of "The Hours" and "The Reader" both earned him Oscar nominations, the splendidly acted thriller follows the fortunes of aging MI-5 intelligence analyst Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy), who finds himself drawn into the personal drama of a mysterious beauty next door (Oscar winner Rachel Weisz) even as an explosive revelation comes to light at work, where his boss, mentor and best friend Ben Baron (Michael Gambon) leads him to a single sentence at the bottom of page eight in a top-secret document -- a sentence that clearly hints at a conspiracy of silence between top government officials in Washington and London involving information that may have jeopardized the lives of several spies on both sides of the Atlantic.
"It's one of the best jobs I've ever had," Nighy says happily of his role in the film, on which he also serves as an executive producer. "I've waited a long time to play a spy, actually, so I was very grateful when I finally got to play one, not least because it was written by David, whom I have worked with all my life and who I admire beyond measure. He is one of the greatest writers currently working, in my opinion, and it's just a very cool thing to play."
Hare got the idea for the story after talking with some people inside the real MI-5 (the British equivalent of the CIA) about the agency's problems dealing with overt pressure from politicians asking them to manipulate intelligence data to support a political case, rather than to analyze the facts objectively, a dilemma that, Hare says, has split MI-5 down the middle.
He didn't start out to write another role for Nighy, his friend and colleague of more than three decades, but he quickly realized the actor was perfect for this role.
"If the man is meant to be sort of secretive and funny and loves jazz and women and is clever and is sort of one step ahead of everyone else, who am I going to get to play that except my old friend Bill Nighy? After about 20 pages, it became clear that it was him," Hare says.
Both men speak with unguarded affection for each other, although when Hare, who was the first director to cast Nighy as a romantic leading man many years ago, refers to his friend's current status as "certainly in Britain, the erotic favorite of a certain middle-aged generation," a bemused Nighy advises an interviewer, "If David had said that in front of me, as Englishmen we would have had to kill ourselves shortly afterwards."
All joking aside, however, both Hare and Nighy talk of "Page Eight" as being something of a dream project, one that also attracted such A-list actors as Ralph Fiennes, playing a charming yet cunning prime minister, and Judy Davis as one of Johnny Worricker's tart-tongued MI-5 colleagues, despite the fact that the film was produced on a $3 million budget over only five weeks.
It certainly doesn't show. Working with one of Hare's best, most compelling scripts, these exceptional actors produce a gallery of such finely realized characters caught up in such vividly realized relationships that viewers are apt to feel as if they are watching a sequel to an earlier film.
"When you come across something which is great art, you sometimes experience it as something familiar to you, as if it was something that already was in your mind but had not yet been revealed to you," Nighy says. "From the moment I read this script, it was as if I were remembering it. That's obviously a trick of the mind, but there is a familiarity to it, as if the words are what I would have gotten around to saying myself given the time."
An executive at NBC/Universal, which co-produced "Page Eight," likewise commented to Hare after screening the film that "'I feel I could take any of these characters and do a spinoff series with them, because I feel as if they exist and they are interesting people. You could take even a quite minor character and run another series off them."
Even more happily, the BBC was so pleased with the film that it immediately asked Hare to write more Johnny Worricker films.
"We are planning to do two more, to follow the story through," Hare says. "I think this is just the beginning. When I first wrote it, the BBC's first response was, 'Can you do six?' but I'm far too slow to do that. I have faced that fact that I have to do three, because there is more to say on the subject."
And that couldn't please Nighy more.
"I am jazzed in the extreme," the actor says. "I am super-jazzed. It's my absolutely ideal situation. If you had asked me, as some journalists do, 'What do you dream of? What would be your ideal project?' well, this is it. This is my perfect engagement. And the fact that there are going to be two more makes it super-perfect.
"I love being directed by David. In the theater as well, he always has had a very highly developed visual sense. His aesthetic has always been very, very expressive and satisfying and mirrors mine to a certain degree. I love how he sees it and how he has been able to make it look. I am just very, very happy."