Grinning skulls
Guns, girls, gags and a confusing plot – what more could you want from a Bond film?

Spectre begins, as a Bond film will, with an elaborate pre-title action sequence in an “exotic” location – this time, it’s Mexico City. The camera picks out Daniel Craig’s 007 from a crowd of skull-painted revellers (it’s the Day of the Dead, you see) and follows him in one long tracking shot from street party to bedroom diplomacy to, as a disgruntled M will later put it, “an international incident”. Bond’s trail of mayhem is one aspect of these films that will never change, even if the elaborate camera work is meant to suggest an artier cinematic register than that in which a Bond film normally operates: less blockbuster, more Birdman (a film that was, incidentally, directed by a Mexican).

Spectre is the second Bond film to be directed by Sam Mendes (following Skyfall, which took more than a billion dollars at the box office), and the fourth to star Daniel Craig as James Bond. Craig inhabits the role like he does his tuxedo: a touch resentfully, with little grace but a lot of vehemence. And Spectre, at last, gives him some jokes. There’s a great sight gag involving a sofa during the pre-title sequence, and the note of absurdity, maintained throughout the film, is a welcome change for this era’s Bond, particularly after Skyfall, which ended in funereal gloom.

There’s a mismatch, though, between the film’s funnier, more self-aware moments – Ben Whishaw’s Q, especially, has developed into a wonderful comic character, and his repartee with Bond is lovely to watch – and its subtext, which is a serious and none-too-subtle critique of contemporary surveillance. As Bond chases skirt and his enemies (which are sometimes one and the same) across the globe, back in London there’s a power struggle afoot between M (Ralph Fiennes) and the newly appointed C (Andrew Scott), an ambitious young Whitehall powerbroker. C is heading a merger between MI5 and MI6, and, if he gets his way, the creation of a “Nine Eyes” international surveillance program, which threatens to render Bond and his fellow 00 agents obsolete.

What Spectre presents us with is a clash of spying codes: remote digital surveillance, blandly efficient yet deeply invasive, versus the personalised violence of an encounter with Mr Licensed To Kill. C is determined to shut down the 00 program (“It’s not personal, it’s the future,” he says) but, unlike Bond, he’s never killed anyone, which the script suggests is a failing of masculinity and of courage. Between a rogue agency and a rogue agent, it’s clear which one we’re meant to favour, and Spectre is an elaborate justification for the relevance of the gun-toting, martini-drinking spy in a post-Snowden world. 

The scenes between C and M crackle – Scott, best known for his role as Moriarty in the TV show Sherlock, is very good at playing a smug, callous bastard who know exactly how nasty he is. He makes a more convincing bad guy than Christoph Waltz, as head of the titular SPECTRE (a name that will be familiar to Bond aficionados), whom Bond pursues for the majority of the film’s two and a half hours. With his Mitteleuropäische accent and sinister grin, Waltz is a Bond villain straight from the Cold War, which is part of the reason he falls a bit flat in this shiny 21st-century setting. His role is written to bring retrospective continuity to all of Craig’s Bond films – an ambitious aim, but the plot lines are more confusing than clarifying.

As for the women, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny is under-utilised, Monica Bellucci as a gangster’s widow even more so, and Léa Seydoux, as Bond girl Madeleine Swann, is competent but not memorable. She, too, lacks the humour that distinguishes the film’s best scenes, though her character’s Proustian name appears to be a screenwriter’s in-joke. (Seydoux’s real-life ancestors include the writer and editor Jean Schlumberger, who turned down the manuscript of In Search of Lost Time.)

If his recent interviews are anything to go by, this may be Craig’s final turn as Bond. “I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrists,” he told Time Out magazine last month, when asked if he was interested in doing another Bond film. He’s still contracted for one more, though, and the next will be the 25th in the series – not the kind of milestone that many actors would willingly pass up. Spectre makes reference to several other Bond films, most obviously the Sean Connery classic From Russia with Love (1963), and, while it can’t stand alongside that film, it will serve equally as either Craig’s valedictory lap or as a stepping stone towards his next instalment. “BOND WILL RETURN”, promises the final credit, and no doubt he will, anachronistic, ridiculous, and bankable.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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