At the Movies

Michael Wood

When Daniel Craig took on the role of James Bond in Casino Royale (2006), there was much talk of the real thing. Here at last was the mean, lethal, almost banter-free figure we thought Ian Fleming had invented, the ruthless, funless fellow we imagined we had always wanted. He had a licence to kill but his real licence was his angry work ethic. He was going to get the job done and nothing would distract him. He looked more like Robert Shaw, the great villain in From Russia with Love, than like any other Bond. He was unshaken, unstirred; dogged not feline, a terrier who made us wonder what those sleek, overdressed catlike figures had been doing these 44 years. Even his smart suits looked like overalls done by Dior – well, by Lindy Hemming, as it happens. When he said, ‘Bond, James Bond’, he was not just identifying himself as other actors had done. He was correcting the record. He was James Bond, the others were impostors, Algernons or Benedicts or something from a quite different branch of the family.

The film (directed by Martin Campbell) was well paced, and organised the old tropes elegantly around the new engine. But by the end it was already beginning to feel tired – with how many more Bond movies to come. It looked good, it was good, but there was some kind of misapprehension lurking in it. Quantum of Solace (2008), directed by Marc Forster, seemed a bit stodgy, but thoroughly faithful to the old-new premise, the labours of the travelling, rough-’em-up bulldog. It was only when I saw it again a few weeks ago – since this is the Bond movies’ fiftieth anniversary year there are places in the world where you can’t see anything on television except Bond films – that I understood. Craig and his directors thought seriousness was a virtue. They had brought a Stanislavskian notion of intensity not just to acting but to fiction. The idea was for Craig to be James Bond and to show us he was no one else. It wasn’t just a matter of dropping the wisecracks and the various excesses of style, running from Connery to Moore via Dalton and Brosnan, or to put it too speedily, from sardonic to camp via brooding and flighty. It was the assumption, which we all half-fell for, that a real James Bond was a good idea. It wasn’t an idea at all, it was a delusion. Why would we want a real James Bond, and what did we want when we thought we wanted him?

This is not quite the way the publicity for Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, has been running, but the makers of the film have in principle understood both the delusion and the question. Craig has said in an interview that he thought it was a mistake not to allow Bond to be funny, and that the new film would be different. The thought of Craig being funny brings to mind the monster doing ‘Putting on the Ritz’ in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, and he isn’t funny in Skyfall. But he does make a grim gag now and again – returning from his supposed grave he says he has been ‘enjoying death’ – he is less righteous, he is damaged, and he thinks. He is – what do you call it? – acting. And the film is often funny, even if its psychoanalytic freight finally tugs it down.

When a drowning man dissolves – the pun is in the image too – into the film’s credits, the joke is quick and allusive. The old Bond theme tune surfaces and rapidly vanishes whenever the action – the motor- bike chase across the rooftops of Istanbul, the slug-out on top of the moving train – gets a little too hokey. It’s not less exciting because it’s hokey – on the contrary – and it reminds us that in the previous two Bond films, as in several thousand other recent movies, mere explosions and the wreckage of vehicles are not action. They are just noise and expense. Q in Skyfall is not an ageing gadgeteer and not dropped from the story. He is a young nerd (played by Ben Whishaw) who gives Bond a radio and asks: ‘Were you expecting an exploding pen?’ When Bond and M, on the run, need to change cars, they switch from an up-to-date Audi (I think) to an old Aston Martin – the old Aston Martin.

This is all knowing without being obtrusive, and the film respects its lineage while both mocking it and escaping from it. It’s all about age in other ways too. Judi Dench (who has always known how to act as distinct from earnestly impersonate) is M again, but her career is about to be terminated, as a smooth-talking Ralph Fiennes tells us. When Bond reappears from his apparent death, he looks terrible, and has no doubt kept himself gaunt and unshaved as a reproach to M – she did after all tell a British agent to take a shot at him. He says that both of them have been in the game ‘maybe too long’. She says, ‘Speak for yourself’, but she must at least share his worry. MI6 itself is ageing – or at least the politicians think so – and M’s retirement is part of a larger picture of supposed obsolescence. What are old-time spies to do in the age of infinite technological intrusion? The movie’s writers (Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan) obviously want to side with tradition against the mindless modernisers but their heart’s not in it. Even M herself is aurally present on a wire while Bond is chasing through Istanbul on his bike and leaping onto a train. This is a fine effect, borrowed from the Bourne movies but put to good use. No spy is ever alone now; or rather, he is still alone enough to do the dying, but also himself spied on perpetually by his listening bosses in another place.

What’s happened in Skyfall is that some unknown enemy or enemies – if you’ve read the credits you’ll know it’s Javier Bardem – has stolen the hard drive of an MI6 computer which contains the names of all the Nato agents embedded in terrorist groups around the world. Don’t ask why the agent we see dying at the beginning was carting this sort of information around on his computer. But Bardem, playing one Raoul Silva, is not in the service of some alien country or corporation, he’s working for himself, and his only interest is mischief – and M. Once a British operative, he feels betrayed by her and seeks revenge – unlike Bond, who is a little ruffled by her willingness to have him killed in the line of her duty, but nevertheless concedes she was just doing her job. The two men are twins in a way: mother’s boys with different priorities. Bardem doesn’t know how to turn in a bad performance, but he’s a little underused here: first splendidly creepy, then just another tall guy with a gun and a couple of disguises. The movie is not really interested in him; only in his interest in M. Silva blows up MI6 headquarters, callously tortures and kills a beautiful French sidekick called Séverine (Bérénice Marlohe in real life, but I would like to think she has migrated from Belle de Jour), takes over various disused bits of the London Underground, allows himself to be caught so that he can be close to M, and … but this is where you need to see the movie for yourselves.

Skyfall has provoked wildly enthusiastic critical reactions in England; calmer manifestations in the US. It’s not impossible that patriotism plays a part here. The gimmicky Olympic association of Bond with the queen continues, since M is constantly addressed as ‘ma’am’ – you could almost confuse it with ‘M’ – and it’s clear that in many respects she is England. When Bond is given a word-association test to prove he’s fit to return to the field, one of the words is ‘country’. He says ‘England’. Normal enough for an English spy, but he says it with a peculiarly loyal, even dreamy look in his eye. This is a different Bond. When offered the prompt-word ‘murder’, he says ‘employment’, and although the answer is grim enough and appropriate enough – what else is his licence for? – there is a sense of service in the idea. This is what he does for her – for various ‘hers’. And this is how she – M, that is – talks to the government commission questioning her work, when she is trying to defend ‘old-fashioned human intelligence’ and its capacity to interrogate what is going on ‘in the shadows’:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Time and fate and Tennyson – and the passage of empire, disguised as the advent of technology and bureaucrats. Sounds like a retirement speech to me. ‘You’re living in a ruin,’ Silva says, and he’s not just describing the underground headquarters of MI6.

There was always a nationalist streak in the Bond image, and you can track fantasies of Englishness through the long series. Clearly the English don’t have quite the same fantasies about their identity as others do, but dreams of Englishness are international in all kinds of ways, and it’s no small feature of the irony and complication of these projections that perhaps the best of these Englishmen was a Scotsman. The dates are interesting: Connery, six films, 1962-71 (plus one comeback in 1983); Lazenby, one film, 1969; Moore, seven films, 1973-85; Dalton, two films, 1987-89; Brosnan, four films, 1995-2002. The Connery films were about a spy who refused to come in from the cold, who refused to believe the cold could be come in from; the Moore films were merely nostalgic for some sort of war, cold, hot or tepid. The high/low point was perhaps Octopussy, where Moore, faced with a large angry tiger, says, ‘Sit,’ and the tiger does. That’s the way we ran the empire: Carry on up the Khyber meets Gunga Din. By the time we got to the Dalton and Brosnan films even fantasy politics seemed left behind, and we were in an alternative universe, a cinema version of Playstation, although of course not without all kinds of charm. The high point here was Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies driving his BMW out of a German garage while lying on the back seat and using a remote control – literally as if he was engaged in a thumbs-only computer game.

Englishness in all these cases connotes a certain unflappability, whatever the differences in style and relation to any known historical world; an effortless superiority, experienced as a sort of inheritance rather than a skill; a worldliness that means the exotic never seems exotic to Bond himself; and a sense that Bond doesn’t really care about any of this, he might be in it just for the entertainment. The attempt to give him feelings, via the death of Diana Rigg, was a hopeless mess.

We see how different Daniel Craig is as Bond. He is not flappable, but his superiority is full of effort; he is not worldly, and he is not enjoying himself. He is gruff – he was even gruff about his helicopter trip with the queen, claiming to be shirty about having to do the job on his day off. Part of the publicity no doubt. But Bond has changed in Skyfall. Whatever his manner, he is serving his country now instead of his own self-regarding virtue. This is certainly a quaint old fantasy of Englishness – I would have thought the reigning fantasy had more to do with robbing the country – and I had better end before I start quoting Henry V.