… but not as we know him. The cast of Spectre explain how the latest 007 movie brings Bond bang up to date.
By Fergus Ewbank
Carving out one of the greatest legacies in British film, it was over 50 years ago that Sean Connery first played James Bond in Dr. No. In the following decades, a handful of actors have shouldered the 007 codename, putting their own spin on Britain’s least secret agent. Since taking on the role in 2005, Daniel Craig has won over audiences and critics alike with his own stamp on the iconic character. His is a postmodern take on Ian Fleming’s Bond; one that embraces the best of the author’s suave spy while adding an air of weariness and conflict. Craig’s Bond is gruffer, meaner and more explosive than those before him. Gone are the cheesy one-liners and shaken martinis of predecessors Connery, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan. Instead, with Craig, we see a character pensive and existentially troubled, barely suppressing the rage within him.
The 24th Bond film since Connery’s first face-off with Dr. No, Spectre marks Craig’s fourth and likely final time playing 007. Directed by Skyfall’s Sam Mendes, Spectre marks the return of the eponymous extra-governmental organisation that figured prominently in the early Bond films. The film also stars Italian bombshell Monica Bellucci and French actress Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Colour) as two Bond girls who subvert the somewhat dated role women have taken in the franchise thus far. Returning cast members include Ralph Fiennes, taking over as M, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Naomie Harris as Miss Moneypenny, while Oscar-winning actor Christoph Waltz plays the arch-villain Franz Oberhauser.
With Craig on camera and Mendes behind it, the pair’s first outing together in Skyfall as a hugely successful one. Any scepticism towards either of them was soon forgotten as box office figures reached a dizzying $1.1bn – nearly twice that of both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace – to become the 12th highest grossing film of all time, and the most successful Bond to date.
As Craig is all too ready to agree, Mendes knows how to put together a good 007 movie. “Sam Mendes was the only guy for the job,” says the actor who, much like the Bond he depicts, doesn’t seem inclined towards overstatement. “He did such a wonderful job on Skyfall,” he continues, “he was the obvious choice to direct the next one.”
An Englishman himself, Mendes grew up with Bond in the same way that Craig did. They both like the same movies and, as both will cheerily add, they like the same bits in those same movies. Given the anticipation that already surrounds the film, Craig’s endorsement of the director could be founded on YouTube trailer views alone. Speaking to him, it seems that his preference for Mendes is based on more personal reasons. Working with the director, Craig has been given the freedom to explore the once camp, detached spy on a deeper level. “What happened in the last movie was a big kick, bringing Sam in,” he explains. “We took the movie in a new direction. We created a language that was different from the other two, but that was faithful to Bond.”
For him, stepping into James Bond’s shoes meant lacing up for a role within one of the most treasured British franchises in film history. By the time the actor made his 007 debut in Casino Royale, Sean, Roger, Timothy and Pierce had already given their interpretation of the spy. He admits, “I couldn’t come in and go, ‘Hmm, Martini,’ or whatever. It’s not who I am.”
While the early Sean Connery films were able to exist within a league of their own, in what was then relatively uncharted space, the secret agent motif now makes for the basis of a fairly commonplace screenwriting template. As such, the Bond of today joins a string of spy film franchises and, thereby, always risks becoming somewhat of a pastiche.
Craig was keen to rethink the formula and take things back to the start. “The original Bond was always in turmoil with himself, always questioning,” he explains. “Maybe he got smoother as the books went on. But going back to the beginning, it’s the way I approach my work. I’m aware it’s a Bond movie and always remains a Bond movie. I’ve just always felt there should be an element of truth or emotion in a movie, so that the audience can hook in. If it’s only action, then it’s not the complete picture.”
While discerning viewers might once have picked up on an occasional storyline or character link in past films, they were, for the most part, unconnected episodes. During Craig’s 007 residency, this has changed and an overarching narrative has begun to emerge. Better thought of as S.P.E.C.T.R.E, the title for his latest film is an anagram for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion – a global terrorist organisation that featured heavily in Fleming’s novels and in Dr. No.
Speculation of a return from Blofeld, the infamous cat-stroking villain of that movie, has turned out to be wrong. However, clued-up fans will notice that by going back to the beginning, there exists a link within Fleming’s novels. The villain of Spectre is Franz Oberhauser, the son of Hannes Oberhauser. A friend of Bond’s father, Hannes was an Austrian climbing and ski instructor who briefly became the young Bond’s guardian after the tragic death of his parents – in, no less, an Alpine climbing accident. Death, family ties and characters racked with inner turmoil – it all feels a little Shakespearean. Then again, it’s probably fair to say that the essence of much modern drama has its basis in The Bard.
So often in big-budget action films, the conflict is played out visually – with machine guns and big explosions – which is all well and good, but 24 films in and viewers begin to expect a touch more substance. In Spectre, Craig delivers weight and meaning to his character – there’s still a licence to kill, but it’s accompanied by a significant level of inner turmoil.
Actress Léa Seydoux, who plays Madeleine Swann alongside Bond in the film, agrees. “I think this is what’s new in the film, it’s not what you can expect from a Bond film. It’s more much intense, complex and deep.” She talks not only about Craig’s redefinition of the leading spy but also how this ties in with Mendes’ more modern treatment of the ‘Bond girl’ role. The decision to cast 50-year-old Monica Bellucci does away with Hollywood stigma regarding age and beauty. The oldest actress ever to be cast as a “Bond woman”, as she puts it, Bellucci’s character not only proves that beauty is ageless but also lays bare the misogynistic tendencies that have run a course through the films to date.
As one of the very few love interests to be older than Bond rather than a decade his junior, Bellucci’s part levels the playing field. It serves to suggest that women should take charge of their sensuality, and that being desirable is much more a function of one’s sense of identity than pure physical attractiveness. Admittedly, given that her character, Lucia Sciarra, ultimately succumbs to Bond anyway, there’s still some distance to go but, for Bellucci, it’s a move in the right direction. “I think it’s a sign that women deserve to be respected and considered beautiful at any age. Sensuality and sexiness does not just belong to women in their 20s or 30s,” she says. “We shouldn’t be made to feel as if we are no longer interesting or sexy at 50 as compared to when we’re 30.”
So what about the ‘feisty’ Bond girl played by Seydoux? “Yes, she is different,” says the actress. “My character, she’s something important, she’s Bond’s equal. She doesn’t need Bond, she doesn’t want to be part of his world. She’s not impressed.” As with Bellucci, Seydoux is keen to emphasise how the role of women has shifted in the film. Far from the stereotypical Bond girl, Léa’s character, Madeleine, is not only uninterested in Bond’s protection, but is also the daughter of his enemy.
Like Bond, Madeleine is not without her complexities. When Seydoux took on the part, there was, at that point, no script to be read, and only the bare bones of a plot. Mendes encouraged his cast to develop their characters subjectively, as Craig has done over his past three films. It worked for Seydoux as it did for Craig. “When I act,” she says, pausing for a moment’s thought, “it’s always about the emotions you give. It’s even subjective. It’s a sensation. It’s not I want to play that, play this, it’s much more mysterious in a way.”
The idea of interpretation is an important one when it comes to modern Bond. On the one hand, Mendes, Craig and fellow cast members are faced with the task of creating a contemporary Bond that’s relevant and attuned to the society in which it is set. On the other, the film cannot be allowed to stray too far from its conception. Though Spectre displays a Bond refined for modern viewers, Ian Fleming’s original novels were reading material for director and cast alike. “We always go back to Fleming,” says Craig. “We just do it. You have to.”
For him, Fleming “literally changed the face of movie-making in the 60s. The legacy is incredible”. And in nowhere, perhaps, is that legacy more apparent than Bond’s choice of vehicle. Generations have been left captivated by all manner of kitted-out cars, but it’s the series of Aston Martins that have come to define 007.
Happily for Craig, it’s business as usual in Spectre. “I literally have to pace myself,” he says, describing his return to the seat of the latest car. “I was driving an Aston Martin around Rome and I’d be numb not to get excited about that.” Something for Bond and only Bond, the DB10 car featured in the film will never go into production for public sale. A one-of-a-kind, the model was designed to celebrate the franchise’s 50th anniversary and the equally long relationship with the manufacturer. That relationship began with what is now the most famous Bond car of all, the DB5, and in designing the latest model, the Aston team and Mendes have paid much homage.
A sinister, modern machine, complete with a featherweight carbon fibre skin for added ferocity, the DB10 is a fitting analogy for Craig’s portrayal of his character. In its simple, sleek lines, there’s an undeniable resemblance to Bond’s first machine and, in that, an allusion to the films in which Connery drove it. Through the ancestry of its design, the DB10 traces the lineage of every Bond car before it. As the latest offspring in a bloodline of gizmo-laden vehicles, the DB10 is a particularly fitting celebration of half a century of James Bond films. As with the majority that have come before it, the car has its fair share of weaponry and gadgets – a complex series of hidden guns, and a flamethrower in the boot – handy additions from Bond’s tech-guru Q.
Q’s seemingly infallible ability to predict what Bond is likely to come up against (even before Bond does) remains as important to the storyline as ever. While Craig’s character may well be more complex, more conflicted, perhaps even a little weary, in each of those gadgets exists an opportunity for escape and survival. Though the modern Bond seems to teeter ever closer to breaking point, there is never a moment where the audience believes he won’t survive. How long the franchise will continue is uncertain but, as we reach the release of Spectre, we can be sure of one thing. Through suicidal driving, megalomaniac supervillains and terrifying henchman, Bond will always emerge at the other end – shaken, not stirred.