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Television Review

In ‘Page Eight,’ the cast is a 10

‘Masterpiece’ show is smart but cold

Rachel Weisz and Bill Nighy in “Masterpiece Contemporary: Page Eight.’’ Rachel Weisz and Bill Nighy in “Masterpiece Contemporary: Page Eight.’’ (carnival for masterpiece)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / November 4, 2011

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Browsing the names in the cast of this new installment of PBS’s “Masterpiece Contemporary,’’ I was overwhelmed with eagerness. I’d have to reprint a massive chunk of imdb.com here to explain why seeing Bill Nighy, Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Judy Davis, Saskia Reeves, Michael Gambon, and Alice Krige listed in the same movie credits is like an invitation to a dream. And the movie, “Page Eight,’’ was written and directed by playwright and screenwriter David Hare, also a plus, to put it mildly.

Now, of course you are waiting for the big “but,’’ the big disappointment. What I’m delivering here, though, is a medium-size “but,’’ since “Page Eight’’ isn’t nearly a mess. The movie, which premieres on Sunday at 9 p.m. on Channel 2, is a drama about the British intelligence community, with Nighy as a national security bureaucrat who is almost pathologically unable to trust anyone. The acting is uniformly excellent, including Fiennes as a nasty prime minister, and the ideas that swim through the script are complex and thought-provoking. If you watch, you won’t ever feel as though your intelligence is being underestimated.

But - here we go - I found “Page Eight’’ oddly tedious and stilted. While the cast is clearly relishing the dialogue and its finely crafted indirection, I was glazing over. Hare seems to be completely unwilling to lightly fill in his script with explication for us, or to infuse a sense of warmth in between any of the lines. It’s all as cold as Nighy’s Johnny Worricker, when he tells his artist daughter about the off-putting despair that he sees in her work. As the viewer of Hare’s story, I felt stuck on the outside, while the characters went through their paces secretly understanding everything that was at stake.

There are two strands to the action. One involves Johnny’s personal life, which is largely empty. When a lively neighbor - Weisz’s Nancy, a book editor - expresses interest in him, he is stubbornly suspicious. Between his disastrous romantic history, and his inability to express himself tenderly to his daughter, he has become a numbed-out bureaucrat with little possibility of ever finding love. He takes pleasure only from art and culture, moments that allow Nighy to bring a much-needed sense of humanity to his character. Johnny’s one playful relationship is with his boss, Gambon’s Benedict Baron, who teases him with straight-faced affection.

The other story line follows Johnny at work, after he notices a sentence on Page 8 of a top-secret file given to him by Benedict. The single sentence implies that the British government may have known that certain pieces of information were extracted by the Americans through torture. The fact that there is torture is less alarming than the fact that it has been acknowledged in print, of course. “Page Eight’’ is about a government teetering on the edge of a moral bottomless pit, with Johnny trying to keep from falling in. Can he stay grounded, despite institutional pressures?

The stories mingle as the movie ambles forward, with a sub-subplot about Nancy’s brother and the Israeli-Palestine conflict only clogging things up unnecessarily. And it all ultimately arrives at a semblance of an ending, after scads of cold, wily interactions. But by that point, I felt very next to nothing about what I’d seen and heard. The movie is so carefully stylized, any and all emotional import has been sucked out of it.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.

MASTERPIECE CONTEMPORARY: PAGE EIGHT Starring: Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, Felicity Jones, Saskia Reeves, Ralph Fiennes, Alice Krige

On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Sunday night, 9-11