Might it be time to lose the ‘Bond girl’?

Feature Simon Brew 8 Nov 2012 - 07:32

Skyfall is a great Bond adventure. But, Simon argues, it does highlight one old 007 convention that might best be retired…

It’ll be a surprise to pretty much nobody that the latest James Bond adventure, Skyfall, has been packing out British cinemas over the past two weeks. The film, which makes it to America this weekend, is genuinely terrific, and just the kind of cinematic adventure that’s best served up cold.

With that in mind, it’s probably best you skip this article if you’ve not seen Skyfall. It doesn’t give away major spoilers or anything, rather that it talks about parts of the film that it’s still best to discover yourself.

If you’re still here, let’s get started.

There’s an awful, awful lot that Skyfall does right. Take the last half hour. Whereas many previous Bonds have got gradually less interesting as they’ve clambered towards a generally monotone climax, this one actually builds to something far, far more intriguing. It’s rare, but Skyfall is a Bond film that saves one of its very best sequences for right near the end. Even Casino Royale couldn’t manage that.

Furthermore, the reinvention of Bond is pretty much complete. Craig is a harder-edged Bond, not without charm, but a soldier, focused on getting the job done. The films have now thoroughly adapted around that tweak to the 007 character and the way he’s played.

And yet the notion of the Bond leading ladies hasn’t.

For my money, the only thing that really holds Skyfall back just a little is the fact that it has to go through decreasingly interesting motions with a ‘Bond girl’. Why? Why is that the part of the Bond franchise that’s seen as sacrosanct? Not the notion of Bond getting together with an assortment of women per se, rather the tired game of cat and mouse, and double entendres, we all have to sit through as he does so. Does this really help the story any more, or is it just included because the world expects it to be there? 

My perception of Craig’s take on Bond isn’t the suave international playboy of the Roger Moore era. He still enjoys his carnal pleasures, and there’s no issue with that. Rather, he strikes me as someone who would, and there’s no way to put this particularly delicately, get down to business a whole lot quicker. That would feel a lot more real at least.

Furthermore, here’s the other beef: the romantic segments of Skyfall (let’s generously call them that) don’t actually advance the story particularly efficiently either. Naomie Harris’ character is far more interesting and effective in the film when she’s not embroiled in a seduction scene that doesn’t feel realistic for her character, or that of Bond. And the two of them trading lines over the radio comms had me cringing. 

Casino Royale at least made all of this matter. At the heart of that story was Bond’s love for a woman - that felt a lot more real, and important. It drove what Bond went on to do. Whether you like the story development or not, it felt like it was integral to the narrative, rather than a box ticking exercise.

I’ve not even got to Berenice Marlohe, who’s the most short-changed actress in a Bond movie since Teri Hatcher in Tomorrow Never Dies. In that film, Hatcher’s job was to live in the shadow of the evil boss, sleep with Bond, and then meet a certain fate. Marlohe isn’t entirely on the same track, but she’s not far apart. Was her role really the best way to join one particular part of the story to the other? I’m not convinced it was.

Modern Bond has re-established what we expect from M (Judi Dench has delivered the best female character ever in the Bond franchise I’d argue), what kind of gadgets are now permissible, and what kind of threats Bond is now lined up against. The excesses are gone, and there’s real focus now. And yet, for all the progress that’s been made with the franchise, this one archaic throwback to Bond of old remains steadfast.

Say what you like about Die Another Day, but at least it tried to do something with the character of Jinx, as played by Halle Berry. It didn’t work, but she didn’t exactly fit the narrative template of a leading actress in a Bond movie. In fact, the Brosnan era tried a few ways to shake things up: Famke Janssen in GoldenEye was the most successful, Denise Richards in The World Is Not Enough the least (not helped by a genuinely terrible last line, that would have undermined the whole character had Richards’ unconvincing performance pretty much not done that already). 

Skyfall demonstrates that, nearly 50 years after the first movie, there are still interesting adventures and things to say and do in the Bond universe. But the issue of the ‘Bond girl’ surely is next on the list for revision.

If a woman wants to sleep with James Bond, that’s great. If James Bond wants to sleep with a woman, I’m happy for him. But in a cinematic 007 world that’s become far more real over the past few films, at least address this in a less two-dimensional, throwaway, cringeworthy way. If it’s compulsory to have a mid-film fumble, cut the preamble and just let them get on with it. That, or make it matter somehow.

Let’s not carry on pretending that Roger Moore is wearing the tuxedo, though. The box office numbers for Skyfall demonstrate once more that the world is behind the many revisions that have been made to 007’s big screen adventures. For the next film, I genuinely hope they have the courage to sort out the one glaring area that’s still in need of attention.

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