The James Bond novels emerged in the 1950s as Ian Fleming’s final “tally-ho” of British imperialism in response to the waning of British power in the onset and development of the Cold War.
The secret agent travelled the globe bringing a (British) sense of order to exotic locations, imprinting spaces and people with the thump of a mythical British fist in an age in which the brutality of British colonialism – think of Churchill’s bombing of Mesopotamia in the 1920s – had all but vanished.
Fleming’s novels fitted clearly into a continuum of better British espionage fiction, ranging from Erskine Childers’ masterful The Riddle of the Sands (1903) to the thrilling adventures of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay and the “entertainments” of Graham Greene.
Fleming’s hero lacked the grace of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond – even if he was equally willing to get down and dirty for the Union Jack in his fight against “Bolsehvism” and its associated evils – and Fleming himself wrote dull prose.
The James Bond films, however, perfectly demonstrate that the commonplace “books are better than films” is far from always the case. The James Bond adaptations managed to infuse Fleming’s novels with an energy, an excitement, and a delicious sense of humour often sorely absent from their sources.
The most recent James Bond film, Spectre (2015), starring Daniel Craig and directed by English film and stage director-cum-Hollywood darling Sam Mendes, is a return to form for the series, and the best of the Craig Bond films. It lacks the pretentiousness of Casino Royale (2006) and Skyfall (2012) – does such ham-fisted psychological realism really add to the characterisation of a stalwart action hero? – and is more cleanly plotted (and shot) than Quantum of Solace (2008).
Low-key but magnificent
It is quite a magnificent film – as much for its low-key, understated approach, evident in the classical staging of the action and the pared-back cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema – as for its tying together of the Bond legend with a narrative that incorporates and develops the past 50-plus years of Bond.
The story begins when Bond, having received a message from the grave from maternal figure M (Judi Dench), stumbles across Spectre – the global criminal organisation behind the villainy of so many Bond films – and sets about dismantling it. Along for the ride is Dr Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of one of Bond’s former nemeses, who quickly, and suitably predictably, becomes the love-interest of the film.
This is set against a fascinating sub-plot centred around the unification of global surveillance and the proliferation of drone warfare. Agent C (Andrew Scott) wants to unite various national espionage agencies whilst at the same time shutting down the double-O program. So M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harries), with occasional assistance of Bond, set about trying to save their jobs – and the world – from C’s corporate tyranny.
Like the other Bond films, there is a distinctly touristic element to the action – and we, as spectators, take undeniable pleasure in the photography of myriad exoticised locations across Europe, Africa and America. The colonial imperative of inspecting, studying, and taking pleasure in the exotic Other – so beautifully written about by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978) – certainly hasn’t died, even if it now exists in a predominantly spectacular form.
Craig seems more comfortable in the role than in the earlier films, and seems to be trying less hard to act like James Bond – perhaps he’s sick enough of the role, now, to just go with it – and Christoph Waltz, as villain Franz Oberhauser, is sufficiently brutal without appearing hammily maniacal.
There is less explicit product placement in Spectre than in other Bond films, and the only immediately recognisable logos are for Aston Martin and Omega. I guess “Bond” has become enough of a consumer/ lifestyle complex in its own right by now that it no longer has to push product placement as hard at the viewer.
The misogynistic elements of Fleming’s character, and some of the films, are similarly played down in Spectre. It is, of course, debatable whether, in most of the films starring Connery and Moore, for example, based as they were on such fantastic narrative and technical infrastructures, “misogyny” was ever really a factor; one could argue that a film would necessarily need to create some sense of social verisimilitude in order for “misogyny” to function as such.
In any case, Bond seems less lascivious than usual – though playing down the Casanova element of the character seemed to define Craig’s Bond from the get-go.
The film is clearly set in a post-9/11, post-Snowden world, and the depiction of urban space shows this – as does the film’s general channelling of contemporary anxieties regarding the proliferation of digital data collection and the general waning of democratic processes under the aegis of corporate control.
London, the spatial epicentre of so many of the films, appears unremittingly bleak. The images of the city are grey, empty – there are hardly any cars on the road, and the city looks closer to the London of 28 Days Later (2002) than of the other Bond films.
Perhaps the most engaging element of Spectre is, indeed, its elegiac, melancholic tone – it would mark a fitting end to the series as a whole (though we are assured, as usual, at the end of the credits, that “James Bond Will Return”).
The film culminates, furthermore, in a very un-Bond like act on the part of Bond that would offer an appealing, if strange, ending to the series. Enough said.
Ari Mattes is a Lecturer in Media Studies, University of Notre Dame, Australia.
Spectre releases in India next week.