29 August 2012
Shaken and stirred
Many have gone before him, but what does Daniel Craig’s Bond tell us about the time we’re now living through, asks Sophie Lister…
James Bond, believe it or not, is 50 years old. Or at least, it’s been 50 years since Sean Connery first appeared on screen as the iconic spy. The first of Ian Fleming’s novels was published in 1953, technically making Bond a pensioner. You wouldn’t know it to look at Daniel Craig, now making his third outing as the character in the much-anticipated Skyfall.
The film boasts an impressive cast, including Ralph Fiennes, Judi Dench and Naomi Harris, as well as rising British star Ben Wishaw as gadget-man Q. With a storyline that sees Bond’s loyalties to his superiors tested, and MI6 itself brought under threat, Skyfall promises to deliver the edgy intensity we now expect from contemporary Bond. Since Casino Royale reinvented the franchise in 2006, there are fewer daft gadgets and overblown villains. Instead, we’ve been offered a more realistic take, with a protagonist as troubled as he is charming.
Like Doctor Who, the Bond franchise’s ability to change the face of its leading man has been its secret weapon, giving the series great longevity. Each new Bond is slightly different, reflecting in some sense the tastes and concerns of his era. Connery, the classic 007, was a smooth, charismatic spy for the swinging 60s. His successor George Lazenby made only one film, before Roger Moore, in the wearier 70s, brought a self-parodic edge to the character. The 80s, in a climate of increased political correctness and sexual awareness, offered a more serious hero in Timothy Dalton; while 90s Bond Pierce Brosnan paid nostalgic tribute to his predecessors.
What does Daniel Craig’s Bond tell us about the time we’re now living through? A controversial choice when his casting was first announced, his take on the character was immediately and noticeably different. Within three minutes of Casino Royale’s opening we witness a younger version of the character killing his first man – and within four minutes, his second. Killing gets easier the more you do it, this leaner, meaner version of the spy remarks. Is it really so simple? Bond may have numbed himself to his life of violence, but the film does not measure loss so lightly. After Bond’s accomplice Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) helps him kill an attacker, she huddles fully clothed in the shower, clearly appalled by her actions. “It’s like there’s blood on my hands,” she says, “and it won’t come off.”
This haunting scene is arguably the most memorable the Craig films have so far offered, and it marks the franchise’s move into more emotionally complex, morally ambiguous territory. The 21st century Bond is both more raw and more hardened than his forerunners, a fitting hero for a culture where trying too hard – or feeling too much – is regarded with suspicion. Notably, when asked whether he wants his martini shaken or stirred, this 007 simply doesn’t care. He slips on a suit of competent cool over his guilt and heartache, as so many of us wish that we could.
It’s this competence which links all the incarnations of Fleming’s spy, and ultimately holds the key to his appeal. David Gulbraa of Capitalism magazine wrote that Bond embodies “the ability to live successfully”, allowing us to vicariously imagine being the ‘best’ version of ourselves. In explaining that “James Bond doesn’t use magic or faith or supernatural powers to get out of his jams,” Gulbraa inadvertently pointed out how the character panders to our vanities. In this way, 007 represents our wish for mastery over our own fate; for aptitude in all areas of life; and for complete self-sufficiency.
Bond has rarely been emotionally attached, let alone emotionally dependent. Women are shown to want him precisely because he can’t be pinned down, while men admire him because he can’t be equaled. His status as a cultural icon reveals our longing to be this desirable, and this untouchable – but the reality just doesn’t match up. No real human being can live as James Bond does, cut off from reliance on others and on God. The time will always come when circumstances force us to admit we’re not as strong as we might wish we were, or as immune from disaster and defeat.
Perhaps the darker direction of contemporary Bond is a tacit acknowledgment of this. Maybe doubts are creeping in around the edges of our certainty, reminding us that we’re not quite the heroes we thought we were; that we were never made to go it alone. That we are capable of being shaken, after all.