Salting the Battlefield

Bill Nighy as Johnny Worricker

After the exotic holiday atmosphere of the second film, Turks & Caicos, The Worricker trilogy concludes with Salting the Battlefield. Writer/director David Hare takes us back, literally, to where we started gradually, starting the action out in Europe, where former agents and lovers Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy) and Margot Tyrell (Helena Bonham Carter) are on the run, before swinging the focus back onto England, then London and finally the claustrophobic confines of the spying community and the upper echelons of the UK government.

Familiar faces return – a heavily pregnant Felicity Jones as Worricker’s permanently angry estranged daughter Juliette, Saskia Reeves as Anthea Catcheside, the deputy prime minister wondering if her hour might be coming, Judy Davis as coiffed and suited MI5 boss Jill Tankard, Ewen Bremner as former spook and now “useful” journalist Rollo Maverley and Ralph Fiennes as Alec Beasley, a prime minister so convinced he has right on his side in every situation that David Hare might as well have called him Tony Blair.

Not forgetting Rupert Graves as Stirling Rogers, the public face of the Foundation run on behalf of the prime minister, and designed to give Beasley a political afterlife. Rogers, though not much of a character in terms of drama, is the nub on which the whole plot turns.

And Worricker’s task is to prove it – that Rogers is just a face and that the real force behind a Foundation intimately bound up in the illegal extraordinary rendition and torture that took place post 9/11 is none other than the UK’s prime minister.

He’s hoping to do it not with an exposé, but by giving Rogers (and by extension the PM) enough rope – by dropping hinting stories into the newspapers – and watching to see if either man will fashion a noose with it. It’s the cover-up not the crime that catches people out, Worricker explains to ballsy Independent newspaper editor Belinda Kay (Olivia Williams) when he finally arrives back in the UK for showtime.

Cat and mouse is the initial mood – Worricker and Tyrell on the run in Europe, evading capture, moving from one safe house or hotel to the next, switching countries, always half a step ahead. But Hare has evidently been watching the US reboot of House of Cards, which debuted in 2013, and he’s borrowed some of that style for a series of one-on-one scenes heavy with silken-tongued interchange. Judy Davis and Saskia Reeves get one early on, in which the spy boss effectively tells the deputy PM to stick with her if she wants to get the top job… without ever quite saying that. Brilliantly written and acted.

Ralph Fiennes as the prime minister
Beware: politician!

So it comes as a bit of a jolt with one scene out on the street, Worricker’s furious daughter and her errant dad having a proper ding dong, that maybe things have actually been a bit too silken for much of the film. The individual one-on-one scenes have been utterly gripping, but the connective tissue joining them all together has been a bit weak. Call it a plot, call it drama.

What Hare does get just right is the way politicians see the “top job” these days, ever since Tony Blair, as a stepping stone on to greater things – a gig at the UN or a “rapporteur” role in some other supranational agency.

The joys of Salting the Battlefield are in all those one-on-one scenes. Near the end of the 90 minutes we get the heavyweight bout with Judy Davis and Bill Nighy facing off, the pair of them signalling madly with a billion subliminal tics that everything they say is doublespeak, the actors as comfortable in their roles as their characters are meant to be.

And so it ends as it began in Page Eight. Dragon slayed? Not quite. Hare is not that naive. But the good fight has at least been fought. And as Johnny Worricker lights up a cigarette and heads out into the night while jazz parps away on the soundtrack three films’ worth of old-fashioned spook stuff come to an end.

Incidentally, the newspaper involved in flushing out the PM, The Independent, ceased production as a print entity within 18 months of Salting the Battlefield airing. That’s entirely appropriate. This has largely been an exercise in end-of-an-era nostalgia, print journalism being as much a relic of a bygone era as Tinker Tailor spycraft.

Salting the Battlefield, the final instalment of the Worricker trilogy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Page Eight

Rachel Weisz and Bill Nighy

From the instant Page Eight starts we know where we are. The camera focuses on Bill Nighy’s face. He lights a cigarette and, as jazz music sulks away on the soundtrack, he strides out into the night. Johnny Worricker (Nighy) is another of Raymond Chandler’s white knights tilting at baddies out on the mean streets and we’re in a noirish thriller set in a world of duplicity.

Personally, I’ll watch anything with Nighy in it, his gangling deadpan generally improving everything it’s inserted into. But there are two other “watch anything they’re in” presences in Page Eight. Michael Gambon (not in it nearly long enough), “the Great Gambon” as Ralph Richardson called him, and Judy Davis, both of whom play Worricker’s superiors at whatever branch of the British intelligence services he works at. If Nighy is Michael Caine in The Ipcress File, think of Gambon and Davis in the Nigel Green and Guy Doleman roles, if that isn’t too oblique.

It is a great cast all the way through in fact. Rachel Weisz, Felicity Jones, Tom Hughes, Ralph Fiennes, Ewen Bremner.

Judy Davis
Judy Davis as Worricker’s boss

Corruption in high places is its motor, the telltale evidence first spotted by the eagle-eyed Johnny – far smarter than he ever lets on – on page eight of a top-secret document about the British government’s knowledge of the US’s use of extraordinary rendition and torture on black sites.

Writer/director David Hare’s abiding concern with the workings (or failings) of public institutions is to the fore, and this being shot in 2011, the financial meltdown of 2008 and the threat of homegrown terrorism are part of the socio-cultural tapestry. Johnny, though one of the “elite”, is one of the good guys. How quaint 2011 now seems.

Hare feeds other stories into this main one detailing how Johnny winkles out the truth about the British government’s enabling compliance in the rendition, and they’re all “Johnny’s relationship with X” in nature – Johnny’s relationship with his estranged artist daughter (Felicity Jones), with the Prime Minister (Fiennes), an alum of the same Oxbridge college, with his mysterious activist neighbour (Weisz), with his ex wife (Alice Krige), who is now married to his oldest chum and boss (Gambon). “We share a wife,” Johnny says drily at one point à propos a plot detail which suggests more than it delivers.

Worricker is the classic spy who cares too much and is so engrossed in his work that he can’t switch off. This leads to him constantly being accused by anyone he’s close to of being duplicitous when in fact it’s everyone else in his crazy mixed-up world who’s dealing from the bottom of the pack.

Some aspects of Hare’s plot now seem a touch politically naive, but in any case it’s not altogether clear what Hare thinks he’s making here – an angry political thriller or one of those cosy TV detective dramas like Inspector Morse, with Oxbridge locations, little antique shops set in picturesque towns with crooked streets, and featuring droves of top-notch character actors.

It’s not going to shock, in other words, and its final reveals, as the bad guy is revealed, are all too depressingly familiar. Some things flat-out don’t work, in particular Johnny’s relationship with his too-keen neighbour, which hits all sorts of bum notes, in spite of Rachel Weisz as the mysterious Nancy Pierpan, the 20 year age gap now looking a bit of a stretch in a post #MeToo world. But as an opener to two more Worricker films (Turks & Caicos and Salting the Battlefield, both from 2014), it’s an enjoyable and even relaxing whodunit. And who doesn’t want to watch Nighy in action?

Page Eight – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Midnight Sky

George Clooney and Caolinn Springall in Arctic gear

The Midnight Sky continues George Clooney’s fascination for sci-fi, a rocky relationship that’s only really yielded one proper old fashioned hit – Gravity. Both Solaris and Tomorrowland seemed to fall into the dark hole between reviewer favourite and audience hit.

Unbowed, Clooney plugs on, directing here, and trying something rather bold as he attempts to weld the thoughtful meditative mood of Solaris to the gut-churning action dynamics of Gravity, a bold and some might say doomed endeavour. The postmodern futurism of Tomorrowland is nowhere to be seen.

The action takes place out in space and here on Earth – out there is a ship returning from scoping out a new planet to colonise, down here the planet has somehow tipped over into apocalypse and radioactivity is destroying all human life. There’s probably only one man left down here – Augustine Lofthouse, a mortally ill scientist who survives because he’s up in the Arctic, a haven from radiation, but for how long?

Up there, the ship is having comms trouble and so the crew have no real idea what’s been going on back home since they’ve been away. One of the film’s twin arcs plots Lofthouse’s journey – accompanied by a mute mystery child (Caoilinn Springall, all expressive eyes) who has missed the mass evacuation from the observatory where he’s been stationed – to a listening post even further north, where he hopes to gain contact with the returning space ship. The other arc tracks the crew returning to Earth, space jeopardy met en route via space walks, depressurising space suits, space debris etc.

In both there’s a sotto voce examination of the biological versus the elective family. Lofthouse has somehow picked up a “daughter”; in space the crew functions like a family, while comms expert Sully (Felicity Jones) is actually pregnant by Captain Adewole (David Oyelowo). Surely there’s a regulation about that.

Clooney bought the rights to Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel, Good Morning, Midnight, and has got in screenwriter Mark L Smith to do the adaptation, presumably with a remit to inject a bit of the sort of wilderness jeopardy (wolves, blizzards, cracking ice) found in The Revenant, which Smith also brought to the screen.

In interviews Clooney has spoken of being aware that he’s trying to pull off a bit of a monster trick here. A jeopardy-in-space movie and a jeopardy-in-the-Arctic movie have nothing inherently in common, except both places are cold, and on top of that Clooney as a director is pitting himself against Alejandro Iñarritu (director of The Revenant) and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity). Call it a Mexican stand-off, if you like.

Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo in space suits
Up above it’s like this

And so, having set himself up for comparison with two top-notch, Oscar-winning directors, Clooney cannot be accused of lacking balls. He does a lot better out in space, in Gravity mode, than he does down below, in Revenant mode, and that’s largely because geography is easier to do in space. Action heroics require a dynamic understanding by the viewer of where everyone is situated at any given moment. Much easier in crystal clear, sharply lit outer space than in a total Arctic whiteout.

How the two realms eventually connect is a cheat, and is unsatisfying, but it does reveal Lofthouse as a man who threw away a possible family life in order to focus on his career. Which is novel. It’s usually women who have the career/family choice to make. Sully’s pregnancy reinforces the feeling that “something is being said” about the choices available to men and women.

What a cast. All underused. Oyelowo and Jones, could be anybody. Also on board are Mitchell (Kyle Chandler) and the most underused of all, Demián Bichir as Sanchez, the “ordinary guy” guys that every space adventure since Alien has felt it obligatory to include.

Alexandre Desplat’s wall-to-wall score attempts to weld together the disparate stories and the underused characters as if it were a fitted carpet tying together rooms with different functions, while director Clooney, in spite of all his obvious visual references to Gravity, tonally seems to be leaning much more towards Solaris’s downbeat mood.

A lot of people didn’t like this movie. I did. For all its weirdnesses it manages to be both entertaining and thoughtful. And on top of that it’s brave, since it knows it’s on a hiding to nothing and has a go anyway. Hooray for that.

Good Morning, Midnight. Buy the original novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021