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January 09, 2007

Casino Royale is the most thought-provoking, and most thoughtful, Bond film since Dr No, argues David Womersley: Casino Royale - Martin Campbell

Posted by David Womersley

Casino Royale
Directed by Martin Campbell
certificate 12A, 2006

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - finds Casino Royale the most thought-provoking, and most thoughtful, Bond film since Dr No.

When Alan Partridge is planning his all-day "Bondathon", in which he will watch in succession all the James Bond films ever made, someone carelessly remarks that it may not be necessary to watch them all. Perhaps one or two could be omitted, as less central or of lesser quality? To which Partridge scoffingly remarks to his PA:

I've got to hear this Lynn - which are the inessential Bond films?
With the exception of Sean Connery, the fact is that each successive Bond erases his predecessor, and so Partridge's question would be more apt if its thrust were reversed: which are now not inessential Bond films? To which the answer is: only the earliest, and the latest. Would anyone - except Alan Partridge - now spend any time watching Goldeneye, or Die Another Day, or Moonraker, or The World is Not Enough?

How then does the arrival of Daniel Craig change the Bond franchise?

In the first place, the physicality, in all respects, has been enhanced. This is not just a question of Craig's impressive physique. At one point Le Chiffre, the villain of the film, is about to torture the naked Bond, and comments appreciatively:

You have looked after your body, Mr Bond
- a remark which, in the cinema where I saw the film, provoked some admiring tittering amongst the young girls. Certainly, Craig is very muscly, showing up both Pierce Brosnan's always to my mind implausibly over-lean body and the middle-aged, corseted, corpulence of Roger Moore.

The violence in Casino Royale is also much more brutal than in previous Bond films. Fights last longer, punches leave marks on faces, blood is spilt - the days of Pierce Brosnan demolishing an office block and then driving a tank through brick walls without it disturbing either his hair or his suit are firmly behind us. This de-camping can be seen also in the stunts (surely the low-point in recent Bond films was also the apogee of the franchise's campness, namely the introduction of John Cleese as Q's assistant: a sign, not of post-modern cleverness, but of the producers' having no idea what to do).

The stunts in Casino Royale are still extraordinary - the opening running stunt is literally breathtaking, and the apparent destruction of a Venetian palazzo was a bravura touch. But they depend less - indeed, not at all - on fantasy machines and impossible gadgets. In this regard there is an interesting detail mid-way through the film when Bond, poisoned with a cocktail, momentarily dies of a heart attack when the defibrillator incorporated in the glove-box of his car fails to operate because of a loose wire (Vesper Lynd, Bond's female sidekick, sees the loose wire and manages to reconnect it, thus literally bringing Bond back from the dead). Clearly, the build quality in the workshops of MI6 is not what it was in the heyday of Q.

But what Casino Royale most intriguingly supplies is a dimension which was absent - perhaps even sedulously excluded - from earlier Bond films: namely, a sense of genealogy and psychology. When Bond first meets Vesper Lynd they play a game of guessing their respective backgrounds - a game of "where do you come from". It's a game which would have made no sense for any of Craig's predecessors - for instance, to have posed the question to Roger Moore would have elicited by way of response only a raised eyebrow (Moore's response, of course, to any question and every eventuality). Earlier Bonds were carefully preserved from any depth of character, so the question of origins would have been meaningless.

Craig's Bond, however, is we learn an orphan: he comes from nowhere, and in certain respects is unknown and unknowable even to himself. He enters the film not as the fully-fledged, impeccable, error-proof, consummate agent with whom we are familiar. He is initially out of control, and a liability to himself and to those around him: questions about his recklessness are asked in the House of Commons. The story of Casino Royale is the process whereby this very raw secret agent is tempered into dispassion, control and competence by grief, torture and betrayal.

So Craig's Bond is not the two-dimensional paragon played by Brosnan and Moore, and even Connery. The events which turn him into James Bond maim him as much as they perfect him. The telling moment comes at the very end of the film, when Bond has just run to earth a villain on the shores of Lake Como. In response to the wounded villain's question,

Who are you?,
we hear for the first time in this film both the unmistakable Bond theme music, and the trademark catch-phrase:
Bond: James Bond.
Only now, we infer, is Bond truly James Bond.

Of course, the plot of Casino Royale - a farrago of terrorism, organised crime and high-stakes poker - does not bear a moment's inspection, but then nor is it meant to. This film is about the re-invention of a mythical figure of the modern imagination - a figure ridiculous and childish in many ways, but nevertheless one who still possesses a certain psychological potency. It will be interesting to see where the producers go from here. But, for the time being, Casino Royale is the most thought-provoking, and most thoughtful, Bond film since Dr No.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

To read noted Bond-watcher Jeremy Black's take on Casino Royale, see: Is Daniel Craig a convincing Bond?.

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James Bond was an orphan but he was not a poor one. His parents and reputable lineage are found OHMSS. As for Mr. Craig's 'impressive physique', he looks as if Vladimir Putin was his father and Gerald Depardieu his mother.

I like a bit less thug in my bond..James Bond.

Posted by: Mrs. Peperium at January 11, 2007 11:13 PM

CASINO ROYALE is the most thought-provoking and thoughtful Bond since DR. NO? Is this guy kidding? CASINO ROYALE makes DR. NO look like shit. In fact, I can think of at least 18 more Bond movies that make DR. NO look like shit.

Posted by: Rosie Powell at May 18, 2007 07:26 PM
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