This review contains spoilers.
Who’s your favourite Bond?
Is it pouting block of man-granite Daniel Craig? Living seaside postcard Roger Moore? Or maybe it’s Alex Salmond’s Speyside spirit guide, Sean Connery? It doesn’t really matter who your favourite 007 is, even if it’s that fella from those Fry’s Turkish Delight ads back in the Sixties, because in Fleming Dominic Cooper feels like he’s trying to be them all within the space of an hour, like a one man tribute act to fiction’s biggest swaggering bastard.
On occasion you do have to keep reminding yourself that this is the story of Ian Fleming you’re watching, and not an expensive ‘Dominic Cooper for the role of James Bond’ audition tape destined to be mailed to the offices of Eon Productions. That’s not entirely Cooper’s fault. In taking the series’ mantra ‘Everything I write has a precedent in truth’ with a pinch of salt and an accompanying tequila shot, the writers John Brownlow and Don Macpherson have made Fleming’s biography to be as Bond, James Bond, as possible without having the familiar gun barrel opener.
The difficulty is that Fleming and his creation are/were essentially one and the same. A near-seamless ouroboros of biography and fiction. In Fleming there’s no attempt to separate the creator and the character (perhaps because there is so little difference between them) but instead just an embracing of Ian Fleming as a man trying to play James Bond, rather than a man who was living a life that would eventually inspire the creation of Bond. He’s a sexist caricature, one that lets you see if you can guess where one man ends and another begins. No wonder Cooper has to Daniel it one minute and Roger it the next. ‘Ahem’.
But that doesn’t have to get in the way of any enjoyment watching it, and episode two starts out strongly with opening scenes of ‘sex, cards, & garrot n’ roll’ in Lisbon, which are squeezed for all their Bondiness. There’s high stakes poker with a villain, a dramatic death scene in a bathroom, and Samuel West being ‘M’ while looking uncannily like his dad. Cooper smokes his cigarette like Connery, quips like Moore, has the detached outlook of Craig. The whole cocktail all goes down very smoothly, promising a level of excitement that was missing from episode one.
However seeing a Nazi being garotted in the bogs is about as exciting as it gets, even with the prospect of more carry on spying abroad. Fleming goes off on his first solo assignment to CGI-occupied France to destroy vital documents before they fall into Nazi hands and – because he’s playing this level on ’00-Agent Difficulty’ and really wants that top score – also decides to undertake the secondary objective of attempting to persuade a French Admiral not to hand a vital fleet of French ships over to the Hun.
None of it feels quite as important or urgent as we’re repeatedly told it is, so seeing Commander Fleming being angry at a series of foreigners all feels inconsequential. Not even a brief bombardment of special effects is enough to cement the Nazi threat. The biggest sign that Hitler (arguably the first Bond villain, what with his plans for world domination, Eagle’s Nest mountain lair, and a physical irregularity) is a threat to Blighty and to Fleming’s chances of sexual intercourse comes when he’s back on home soil.
Fleming returns from his mission to find his first act conquest dead. His beau Muriel ‘Moo’ Wright lies on her bed in a peaceful pose that instantly calls to mind the Jill Mastersons, Paris Carvers, and Strawberry Fields of fictional conquests yet to come, and there’s good reason for that. Wright’s life and death would be eventually be identified as the foundation of the Bond girl template: Fleming’s idealisation of the women in his novels as young, attractive, and sexually-inexperienced cardboard cut-outs that the hero could manhandle as he pleased and then dispose of. In the sensitively handled death of his girlfriend (a charitable title, based on the way he’s treated her) you’re seeing the birth of a pivotal feature of the franchise.
In the Blitz-hot echelons of high society’s white tie and whispered tales, Ann O’Neill and Fleming’s relationship creaks along with all the sexual tension of a rusted bedspring. Their brief encounters are predicated entirely on awkward conversation and long uncomfortable glances as a form of sterile foreplay. Pulver and Cooper are both attractive people, but there is no spark of eroticism between them, no matter how high Pulver raises her chin and purrs. There’s more sexual tension between Fleming and his mother.
Is that the point though, to make what follows seem all the more shocking? Fleming and O’Neill’s repartee ends in a brutally uncomfortable scene that so violently blurs the line between S&M and rape that you may have had to turn the volume down so that your neighbours didn’t ponder phoning the police to report a serious sexual assault. It is unpleasant to watch as Fleming, feeling his sexuality and love for Muriel challenged, lashes out in an aggressive display of masculine overcompensation that, ironically, makes him look all the more impotent.
It’s perhaps the only dramatic distinction the show makes between Fleming and Bond, who always took what he wanted between the (book) covers, often with little regard for finesse, and often on a train – hoo-boy does James Bond love the confined rattle and thrill of train sex. But it was always consensual. Or at least it was never implied otherwise. As preposterous as it sounds now, Bond rescued naïve young women and they, entranced by his raw masculine power, fell for him. But Bond was the fantasy. Fleming is just the all-too fallible creator. A man it’s hard to see as a hero. He’s the man who wanted to be – but never will be – your favourite Bond.
Read Rob’s review of the previous episode, here.
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