It is one of life's truths – we will sometimes watch so-so TV if certain favourite actors are involved. One of those actors is Bill Nighy. Another is Helena Bonham Carter. And, for some, it's Ralph Fiennes.
Worricker: Salting the Battlefield (Sunday, Masterpiece Contemporary, PBS, 9 p.m.) features all three, plus Judy Davis. It is perfectly pleasant, well-intentioned and at times serious-minded British drama. But it doesn't amount to sizzling storytelling in the end.
The thriller is the third instalment of the dramas featuring Nighy as Johnny Worricker, a veteran MI5 officer. In the first outing, Page Eight, in 2011, he's going about his business, but painfully aware of his messy personal life. His ex became involved with a top MI5 chap and when the chap dies, Johnny finds himself in possession of a secret file that, if accurate, is sensational – it suggests that a senior British government figure, possibly the Prime Minister, rolled over and allowed the United States to do terrible things in its war on terror.
The upshot is that Johnny legged it out of MI5, and Britain, and continued a guerrilla war of information against the weasels at 10 Downing St. He also acquired money and a younger, comely companion on his thither-and-yon flight. Meanwhile, of course, the government wanted him dead or his toxic, secret information erased. In a second instalment (they can all be watched independently), Worricker hid out in the Turks and Caicos and got entangled with ruthless American business types. The cast for that one included Christopher Walken and Winona Ryder. Some PBS stations are showing both Worricker dramas on Sunday.
In Salting the Battlefield, Johnny's battle with 10 Downing St. continues and comes to a climax. He's in Germany with another ex-spy, Margot (Bonham Carter), and trying to use the British press to leak information and force the PM (Fiennes) to answer questions. It's an elaborate chase, with the head of MI5 (Judy Davis) manipulating everybody.
There is much to admire here. The thrillers are written by playwright David Hare and the dialogue is crisp, smart, witty and brimming with sharp insights into the murky relationship between MI5 and the CIA, and the U.S. and British governments. It just doesn't quite gel as a terrific, tension-filled thriller.
It's Nighy that commands it, though. His presence, the gaunt face, upright stance and sly wit of his delivery make him the epitome of old-fashioned English decency, a decency on the verge of extinction. And that is, in a way, the whole point of these dramas – England's decency is lost when it gets cozy with the USA.
Fiennes as the PM is wonderful. There's a coiled, vicious anger in him. When Page Eight was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, I interviewed David Hare, who said, "Interestingly, I think Ralph used the body language of Vladimir Putin to express that physical presence the character puts forward." At the same time, Bonham Carter seems a bit lost, there being little for her to do except look fabulous and deliver an occasional line of contempt about that PM guy.
The portrait of the British media is fascinating, though. As much weasels as those who work in the government, these journalists and editors are barely tamed animals. It takes all of Johnny Worricker's spycraft to nudge, trick and goad them into landing punches on the PM.
These thrillers are beautifully written, and it's the material that attracts the distinguished actors. What Hare and Nighy have wrought is the thinking-person's spy thriller, upmarket Le Carré-type stories that have a sharp political edge to them. They don't amount to sizzling TV but, even when the drama drags, you're watching superb actors in a splendidly written drama.
Also airing this weekend
Getting On (Sunday, HBO Canada, 10:30 p.m.) is back and worth your attention, but note that it's not your usual medical drama – it relies on very dark humour and will leave you dreading the possibility of ending up old and sick. Based on the BBC series of the same name, Getting On is set in an extended-care unit for seniors in Long Beach, Calif. Those paid to care don't care much. The patients can be vindictive and super-demanding. There is scene after scene of uncomfortable humour. Laurie Metcalf plays Dr. Jenna James, a doctor of demented perkiness, capturing all the very acid humour of the series. You won't sleep easy after seeing this, if old age worries you.
All times ET. Check local listings.