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







Turks & Caicos

Bill Nighy


Turks & Caicos is the second of the Johnny Worricker trilogy of TV movies made by Carnival Films (of Downton Abbey fame) for the BBC and boasting the sort of cast that was still rare at small screen level in 2014. Christopher Walken and Winona Ryder are the properly big names, though Dylan Baker, Helena Bonham Carter, Rupert Graves and Ewen Bremner (returning from the first movie) are hardly kitty litter. Ralph Fiennes, though present and correct, is only on screen for a few seconds and so doesn’t really count.

For those coming in cold, there is absolutely no need to have watched the first one (Page Eight) to enjoy the second. All you need to know, and it’s easy to work out within seconds, is that Bill Nighy’s Johnny Worricker (now posing under the ho-ho nom de guerre of Tom Elliot, poetry lovers) is an ex-spy who is hiding out in the paradisical British Protectorate of the Turks & Caicos Islands, having fled the UK after dynamiting his career.

Whether the laconic, supersmart Worricker really did just “take the first flight” he saw on the departures board at Heathrow, as he claims, or has some agenda is never really established, but the tentacles of extraordinary rendition continue to exert a strong grip, with the island full of wealthy businesmen who have all profited hugely from the off-the-books, over-the-odds shady deals they’ve been able to do with the US government thanks to the “war on terror”.

Returnees will remember that Page Eight came at the subject from a different direction – how the US had co-opted allies into playing along with illegal rendition on black sites, with writer/director Hare making the point obliquely that, to avoid the charge of being a vassal state, countries often carry out the US’s wishes with more enthusiasm than is strictly required.

Winona Ryder and Bill Nighy
Winona Ryder and Bill Nighy



Here Hare is much more interested in the interface between the US government and private companies, who made a bundle out of rendition, and since seediness is the charge, business associates Gary Bethwaite (Dylan Baker), Dido Parsons (Zach Grenier) and Frank Church (James Naughton) all have the complacent, badly dressed look of New Jersey mobsters who’ve accidentally gone legit. And as if we hadn’t twigged that they are not good guys, Hare throws in a sexual subplot involving all three and their company PR, the appropriately named Melanie Fall (Ryder).

Melanie Fall is meant to be a damaged character and Winona Ryder goes at her with eyes wide and all the bonkers lights flashing. She’s madly brilliant at it, even though you kind of wonder how much of what Ryder is doing is acting. Even more fun is watching every scene where Nighy and Walken interact, both of them masters of supremely mannered delivery, with each one obviously trying to make the other one corpse by ladling on ever increasing amounts of whatever it is that they do. Vastly enjoyable.

Walken gets the best speech, a remarkably prescient one for 2014, which inveighs against America’s endless wars and their cost and warns that people back home are “sore… it’s dusk in America,” a sentiment picked up months down the line by Donald Trump.

Even though the sunny Turks and Caicos settings mean it threatens to turn into an episode of the cosy BBC whodunit series Death in Paradise at any minute, it’s a more satisying film than Page Eight, clicking along like a precision watch and with a politics that seem more grounded in the consensual neoliberal stasis of the day. Along with Worricker’s James Bond-alike ability to set female loins aflame, these mark out Turks & Caicos as a film from what now seems like another era.

The last of the trilogy, Salting the Battlefield, would follow later in the year. And my review of that will be along shortly too.




Turks & Caicos, the second of the Johnny Worricker trilogy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Sixty Six

Gregg Sulkin and Helena Bonham Carter in Sixty Six

 

 

Bernie, a London Jewish boy who sees his barmitzvah as the very peak of his young life, suddenly realises it’s taking place on the same day as the 1966 football (soccer) World Cup final. Will anyone come, especially once the home team start morphing from total no-hopers to potential giant-killers? Helena Bonham Carter, Peter Serafinowicz, Eddie Marsan and Catherine Tate are among the familiar British faces helping young Gregg Sulkin towards his big day in a likeable but small-scale comedy which pins its hopes on the footballing names Bobby Moore, Nobby Stiles et al to give it back-of-the-net appeal.

This of course makes for very parochial comedy indeed, but director Paul Weiland, apparently basing it on events in his own life, gives it emotional heft and packs it with the sort of homeliness that might be missing from a more production line affair – comedy uncles who answer questions with a shrug and an apologetic look, comedy aunts whose culinary concoctions are so appalling that no one can tell what ingredients went into them. If you can detect the hand of Richard Curtis in there (the funny speeches at family events, perhaps?), who apparently wrote the film’s first draft, that’s because he and Weiland are old buddies.

And while young Bernie, not particularly popular, can be seen as a metaphor for the entire England team, who were underdogs going into the 1966 World Cup, indeed were only invited to play because they were the host nation, is it too fanciful to see his family as stand-ins for Jews everywhere as the family sees their fortunes taking a major setback in one unlucky accident after another? Yes, that probably is a bit of a stretch, because the one thing that Sixty Six isn’t is overly ambitious. Indeed if you’re familiar with any of the work of Jack Rosenthal, his 1976 TV play Bar Mitzvah Boy most obviously, then this tucks right in to that niche Rosenthal has hewn, though he’s a more particular and detailed writer than Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, who have fleshed out Weiland’s own story.

This throws a lot of weight onto the shoulders of the actors, and for the most part they rise to the challenge, Helena Bonham Carter making a fine North London Jewish mother whose boy and his special day brings out the warrior queen in her, Eddie Marsan as Bernie’s dad, a nervous piece of wet timidity too interested in his own business dealings, Catherine Tate as the aunt whose canapés are fit only for laboratory testing.

It’s the sort of film that Britain seems to be able to make with its eyes closed – warm, periodically funny, gentle and well acted – the sort that isn’t likely to encourage a mass desertion of warm sofas and remote controls in favour of queuing outside a pricey cinema on a cool evening. Where are this country’s Luc Bessons?

 

 

 

Sixty Six – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006