Page Eight turns on Nighy

An noteworthy performance from Bill Nighy nearly redeems an underwhelming thriller.

Spies have all the fun. Or at least they would if they’d bother to crack a smile and enjoy the casual affairs, fine dining and natty dress code once in a while. Bill Nighy’s Johnny Worricker is MI5, casual to the point of almost being Perry Como with a very dry sense of humor. Gambon’s Ben is his best bud and mentor; they go way back, all the way to Cambridge. So close, in fact, that Ben is married to Johnny’s ex-wife. (It’s even suggested — not entirely unseriously — that Ben married her to make amends for his friend being such a bad husband.)

Worricker’s loyal to Ben, collects art (just not his mopey daughter’s art) and listens to cool jazz. He was a shitty husband, he can be a shitty dad, and he’s an adulterer at the bargain. But he’s determined to honor the departed Ben, who died of a heart attack not long after sharing a classified report with MI5 brass and the home secretary that reveals the Americans up to no good. That’s because they’ve got prisoners who don’t exist being held captive at secret prisons. Page eight — the page eight — of the report puts Downing Street square in its crosshairs, meaning Prime Minister Ralph Fiennes has known about the Americans, too, but he’s not sharing that with his people.

Skulkers skulk, betrayers betray, cynical talk is made of the farce that is intelligence gathering, and Page Eight plays like noir-lite. For a movie that touches on political calculations and machinations, and responsibilities to the citizenry, it’s featherweight. That’s because it isn’t about any of the issues it brings up. Director and screenwriter David Hare doesn’t bother to argue or even dramatize any of the points his characters assert, making Page Eight comfort food for the likeminded. Questions answered with questions passes for wit, and hackneyed, empty phrases masquerade as wisdom: “You’ll have to choose sides one day,” a smug acquaintance informs Johnny during an art exhibition. “People get killed in the middle of the road.”

Page Eight is about its own urbane mood, and celebrating Johnny the suave hero for giving the middle finger to his employers while doing right by his conscience. Nothing wrong with that, except a little more showing than telling would have been in order. But the talking can be sublime. Watching Nighy’s performance is like going under hypnosis, he’s so understated. A few outbursts prove he’s nearly one of us, and he even gets off a good line with many conceivable applications: “Why do you want to piss on life before you’ve even lived it?”