Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Is James Bond an Altruist? Part 1

by SF Girl (writer), Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, September 30, 2010

Her eyes were wide apart and deep blue and they gazed candidly back at Bond with a touch of ironical disinterest which, to his annoyance, he found he would like to shatter, roughly.

Now, before you go have a bird and laugh me off the site, just hear me out...Well, after I tell you what I thought of the latest Bond motion picture, Casino Royale, that is...

This motion picture, directed by Martin Campbell (Goldeneye) created a dichotomy in my family and in my movie-going community: one side was utterly disappointed, even disgusted, and the other side surprisingly impressed. For once, I sided with the critics—many who extolled this latest of Bond films for its refreshing candor, dark edge and gritty realism. I say, for once, because, more often than not, I have taken the opposite side of the majority of critics (see my other reviews here and elsewhere), finding gems where others have found only rock. This time I have good company; except for my own family and friends, that is. It would seem that, although Casino Royale was highly regarded by the critics of the franchise, its long-standing viewing public was not equally impressed. Yes, this was a different Bond movie, which the Mandelbrot fractal designed title opening and title song hinted at: did you listen to the words of the title song?

Of those in the negative camp there appear to be two major reasons for rejecting this latest version of Bond. One is the Bond character himself (played with edgy grit by tautly coiled Daniel Craig) and how the other characters were portrayed (especially Bond Girl, Vesper Lynd, superbly played by Eva Green but with no revealing cleavage); the second is the lack of Bond clichés, such as the techno-gadgetry, non-stop action, womanizing and comic-book humor. Despite showcasing some of the most mouth-watering chase scenes (particularly the opening chase with parkour [free running] originator, Sebastién Foucan, and Craig doing most of the stunts himself), this Bond film was a more thoughtful one. It was also probably one of the most physically demanding Bond films to play by its lead character. David Edelstein of New York Magazine, describes the director’s “awe for the poetry of human bodies doing things that, evolutionarily speaking, they haven’t needed to do since the saber-toothed tiger died off.”

There are, I think, several reasons for this dichotomy between those of us who loved Casino Royale and those who remained diffident, disappointed or outright disliked it. One of which—and it is I think an important one—is that I have read the entire series, and long before a flashy movie was made using the title (often only using the title!). I grew up with Sean Connery as the quintessential Bond, a roughly handsome man with striking eyes and a cruel mouth. In the book version of Casino Royale, Vesper Lynd, after just meeting Bond, admits to Mathis: “He is very good looking…but there is something cold and ruthless in his [mouth]…” Ian Fleming’s Bond is a somber misogynist who initially wants to bed Vesper as if to punish her for not falling for his charm:

Her eyes were wide apart and deep blue and they gazed candidly back at Bond with a touch of ironical disinterest which, to his annoyance, he found he would like to shatter, roughly.

I would not describe Campbell’s Bond as a misogynist, despite tendencies for being a ruthless sociopath with a slightly sadistic sense of humour. After Casino Royale and his experience with one particular woman, he might have turned into one, though…

Daniel Craig and those scintillating radioactive blue eyes brings us back to why we are ultimately fascinated with the character of James Bond. Think for a moment: this man is basically a sociopath, an assassin with a license to kill, dispense violence and torture to protect queen and country—a concept. Well, perhaps not quite a concept. Which brings us to M, Bond’s pithy superior in MI-6 in the British Secret Service. Bond is like a child in many ways, emotionally certainly. David Edelstein of New York Magazine describes Craig’s Bond as: “haunted, not yet housebroken, still figuring out his persona.”

The movie series—and this film in particular—explores this aspect of Bond through his complex relationship with M (played superbly by Dame Judi Dench). M is like a mother to him. His allegiance to queen and country, so prevalent in many of the Bond movies, appears a natural progression of this intuitive search to belong and connect, particularly in his relationship with M. He breaks into her private house, not for a moment realizing—or capable of caring— what this invasion of privacy means to her. M scolds Bond like he is a child and calls him a “blunt instrument”. Says M: “Any thug can kill. I want you to take your ego out of the equation.” Craig’s Bond is the closest to the original character envisaged by Fleming, who describes Bond’s features as “a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold.” Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer describes Craig as “earthy and exotic, holding himself like a smoking gun.”

Thanks to excellent script writing by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis, it is Vesper Lynd in the movie who recognizes that Bond is an orphan, looking for home—though she doesn’t call him on the latter. Bond is a man who doesn’t recognize boundaries, who’s closed off his emotions from the rest of him.

The length to which he protects that inner vulnerable self is evident in his rakish and shallow relationships with women. After Vesper insists on separate rooms at the hotel, Bond says, “Don’t worry. You’re not my type.” To which she tartly quips, “Smart?” And he responds, “Single.” This is more elaborately described in the book:

Bond saw luck as a woman, to be softly wooed or brutally ravaged, never pandered to or pursued…One day, and he accepted the fact, he would be brought to his knees by love or by luck. When that happened he knew that he too would be branded with the deadly question-mark he recognized so often in others, the promise to pay before you have lost; the acceptance of fallibility.

It is so apt that Vesper Lynd is the one to shatter his cool and it is she (in the form of luck and love) who literally brings him to his knees by the last pages of the book with her tragic act of suicide.

Despite a truly chilling villain in Le Chiffre (played by Mads Mikkelsen) and that frightening soulless Mister White (keep an eye on him from the first scene; I think he will resurface in Bond 22), it is not the villains in Casino Royale who place equal footing with Bond; it is the two women in his life. I found atypical “Bond Girl” Vesper Lynd (his alluring and mysterious foil with dark depth) and M, his forthright boss, equally compelling and complex as Bond. They, better than the villains, help to define Bond and permit the film to rise from the shallows of its predecessors into the interesting arena of real art.

This definitive Bond film, begins appropriately with a slick black and white prologue of Bond’s pre ‘00’ status (prior to achieving two kills). The heady and violent chiaroscuro creates a mood in keeping with the edgy grit of Craig’s Bond, “whose cruel charisma rivals that of Sean Connery” (Ty Burr, Boston Globe). Every scene that follows defines Bond: his ruthless drive in the foot-chase; his sardonic humor when he’s mistaken for a valet and “punishes” the customer by crashing his expensive car, marking Bond’s disdain for the declassé rich (a trait that is further made apparent during Vesper’s penetrating analysis of him in the train).

Producer, Barbara Broccoli, successfully subverted the Bond trope to finally portray a “Bond Girl” as equal to Bond; someone equally complex, mysterious and interesting with her own compelling story, so much so that she draws the insular Bond into it. “The idea of a woman who is Bond’s equal is unusual in the 007 series,” says Jay Stone of the Times Colonist in his article entitled, “Bond Girl with Brains”. Vesper is a compelling character, a real person; not just a mannequin for men to fantasize over. There have been other intelligent and strong-willed Bond Girls (e.g., Jinx in Die Another Day; Polly Goodhead in Moonraker; Natalya Simonova in Goldeneye), but none as engaging, none as vulnerable, contradictory and multi-layered as Vesper, who harbors a dark secret. It is partly Vesper’s dark secret that unknowingly clinches Bond’s interest. Vesper demonstrates right from her opening scene where she first meets Bond onboard a Euro fast train that she is not a typical Bond girl. First there is no gushy “Oh, she’s gaspingly beautiful!” music to accompany her on-screen entrance; no highlighting of her physical attributes; no bikini to cue us in that she is the “Bond Girl”.

Instead, Vesper sweeps in like a summer storm and sits across from Bond, dressed in what he describes as “slightly masculine cut clothing” and flashes him with eyes that sparkle of taunting girlish impudence. As she takes her seat, she summarily announces “I’m the money,” succinctly letting him know that she is in charge and what she thinks of him. Even his attempt at a rakish response, “Every penny of it,” doesn’t phase her and she launches into a sarcastic examination of the plan, further letting him know what she thinks of the whole plan of poker: “I suppose you’ve given some thought to the notion that if you lose, our government will have directly financed terrorism”. So she’ll be keeping her eye on their government’s money and not on Bond’s “perfectly formed” backside. To this Bond quips, “You noticed.” Vesper has a quick come back: “Even accountants have imagination.” To his suggestion of a plan, “Oh, there’s a plan,” she responds in a mocking tone. “I got the impression we were risking millions of dollars and hundreds of lives on a game of chance.” Then she challenges him on his ability to bluff and read people (which provides the first in several installments of a subplot involving bluffing and “tells”).

Their verbal joust, which sizzles with sexual tension, escalates when Bond, priding himself in his ability to read people, demonstrates his skill as a poker player by arrogantly analyzing Vesper’s personality and life from cues in their conversation. She turns the tables by doing an even more penetrating character sketch of him, calling him on his hubris and ego, and essentially out-bluffing him:

“By the cut of your suit you went to Oxford or wherever and actually think human beings dress like that. But you wear it with such disdain. My guess is you didn’t come from money and your school friends never let you forget it, which means you were at that school by the grace of someone else’s charity, hence the chip on your shoulder…and since your first thought about me ran to orphan, that’s what I’d say you are…” Seeing his expression, she gloats, “Oh, you are! I like this poker thing. And it makes perfect sense. Since MI6 looks for maladjusted young men who give little thought to sacrificing others in order to protect queen and country. You know, former SAS types, with easy smiles and expensive watches…” She glances down at his. “Rolex?” Then dives in for the killing blow: “Now, having just met you, I wouldn’t go as far as calling you a cold-hearted bastard…but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine you think of women as disposable pleasures rather than meaningful pursuits.”

But more than out-bluffing him, Vesper also proves herself to be a complex person on her own “hero’s journey”, a tortured character (we find out only later) with heavy matters to consider that involve more than the Bond girl’s typical single question: “should I sleep with this guy or not?” The fullness and depth of her character as a “real” person is no better found than in the tender shower scene midway, where we are reminded that Vesper is a real person, an accountant unused to violence. Again, we find Bond about to enter their common bathroom to the sounds of a shower; I fully expected to see the typical playful scene between the Bond girl, nude in the shower, and Bond. But when he opens the door, she is revealed sitting under the shower, still fully clothed in her evening gown, shivering in shock. She’d just witnessed (and had even helped) a violent altercation in which Bond had to beat a man to death. For the first time in this series, we have a perfectly plausible reaction. Vesper is strong at first and assists Bond by helping to force the gun out of the assailant’s hand, then breaks down after she’s done what needs to be done and is alone. Bond surprises us by melting into a caring human being as he quietly and patiently comforts Vesper. And Broccoli tastefully does not let it dissolve into a sexual love scene. This scene is just one of several where the film takes a typical Bond cliché and brazenly turns it on its side—where we expect one thing and get quite another. An amusing example of this is when Bond playfully informs Vesper, as they are driving to their hotel, of her cover name (“Miss Stephanie Broadchest”) to which she takes great exception.

Vesper certainly has Bond sized up. “There are dinner jackets and there are dinner jackets,” Vesper informs the bemused Bond in an earlier scene. She introduces him to the tailored tuxedo, in which he looks utterly splendid, by the way. The scene where he critically eyes himself in the mirror in his new tux provides us with a snapshot that is all Bond (and all Craig, I should add!): suave, sophisticated and mercurial, yet boyishly inviting, even awkward. Eva Green’s “Vesper is teasing, angry, and vulnerable in madly unpredictable proportions” David Edelstein (New York Magazine) adds. A smart, self-possessed government accountant, Vesper “has the sensuality and extraordinary empathy to tenderize [Bond’s] presence,” said Scragow of the Baltimore Sun. Broccoli improved on Fleming’s Vesper by making her a treasury accountant in charge of the money, and therefore of Bond.

Keeping true to Fleming’s first James Bond book, the film version of Casino Royale is, at its heart, a tragic love story. As Stax (IGN) says: “Bond falls in love, he changes; he cares for a woman rather than just lusts after her. They make love, laugh, quarrel but there is a friendship and tenderness between them. That makes the outcome of the story and Bond’s infamous last line—‘the bitch is dead’—all the more heartbreaking”. Casino Royale is a story of how a scarred man found his humanity through love, only to loose both to the ‘game’. The irony of what Bond became, following Vesper’s death, lies in her absolute mastery of him. Her power over his heart was elegantly shown as she both physically and metaphorically jumpstarted it. In fact, she saves his life twice. In the end she beats him with the ultimate bluff, beating him squarely at his own game. When she realizes that she will never escape SPECTRE, Vesper successfully hides her tortured decision to save Bond by ironically betraying him. In keeping with the book, Vesper’s character is tormented by her genuine love for Bond and her conviction that he would hate her once he learned the truth about her—compelling her to end her life. The reason she succeeds so well in out-bluffing him (and the audience) is because in matters of the heart she is tenderly sincere. As Bond himself declared to her, “Everyone has a ‘tell’...except you...that’s why I love you.” Blinded by their mutual love, he is totally side-winded by her underhandedness. This explains why Bond later refuses to lower his armor and become vulnerable with any other woman; how can he trust his spy-sense when matters of the heart intersect and blur his cold judgment? He must, Bond concludes, keep them apart, tuck that humanity way inside, never let it get out again.

While some of the movie-Bond tropes are there…they are few and well placed and just enough to remind us of how Bond uses off-color humor to disarm or even to disturb. After a near-fatal interlude during the film’s card game, he quips, “I’m sorry, that last hand nearly killed me.”

Another cliché which this film turned on its side is the classic figure emerging out of the sea—this time not the Bond Girl, but Bond himself. To those who lament the old clichés, Ty Burr of the Boston Globe offers this: “consider whether, after twenty-one Bond films and countless parodies, your response is simply Pavlovian.” Grow up. Bond has.

...So, where does altruism enter into all of this...How about I tell you in Part 2...

Nina Munteanu is an internationally published author, essayist and reviewer. You can find out more about Nina and her writing at The Passionate Writer. You can read other reviews by Nina on her popular award-winning blog, The Alien Next Door.

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SF Girl is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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