When Daniel Craig took on the role of James Bond in Casino Royale (2006), there was much talk of the real thing. Here at last was the mean, lethal, almost banter-free figure we thought Ian Fleming had invented, the ruthless, funless fellow we imagined we had always wanted. He had a licence to kill but his real licence was his angry work ethic. He was going to get the job done and nothing would distract him. He looked more like Robert Shaw, the great villain in From Russia with Love, than like any other Bond. He was unshaken, unstirred; dogged not feline, a terrier who made us wonder what those sleek, overdressed catlike figures had been doing these 44 years. Even his smart suits looked like overalls done by Dior – well, by Lindy Hemming, as it happens. When he said, ‘Bond, James Bond’, he was not just identifying himself as other actors had done. He was correcting the record. He was James Bond, the others were impostors, Algernons or Benedicts or something from a quite different branch of the family.
The film (directed by Martin Campbell) was well paced, and organised the old tropes elegantly around the new engine. But by the end it was already beginning to feel tired – with how many more Bond movies to come. It looked good, it was good, but there was some kind of misapprehension lurking in it. Quantum of Solace (2008), directed by Marc Forster, seemed a bit stodgy, but thoroughly faithful to the old-new premise, the labours of the travelling, rough-’em-up bulldog. It was only when I saw it again a few weeks ago – since this is the Bond movies’ fiftieth anniversary year there are places in the world where you can’t see anything on television except Bond films – that I understood. Craig and his directors thought seriousness was a virtue. They had brought a Stanislavskian notion of intensity not just to acting but to fiction. The idea was for Craig to be James Bond and to show us he was no one else. It wasn’t just a matter of dropping the wisecracks and the various excesses of style, running from Connery to Moore via Dalton and Brosnan, or to put it too speedily, from sardonic to camp via brooding and flighty. It was the assumption, which we all half-fell for, that a real James Bond was a good idea. It wasn’t an idea at all, it was a delusion. Why would we want a real James Bond, and what did we want when we thought we wanted him?
This is not quite the way the publicity for Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, has been running, but the makers of the film have in principle understood both the delusion and the question. Craig has said in an interview that he thought it was a mistake not to allow Bond to be funny, and that the new film would be different. The thought of Craig being funny brings to mind the monster doing ‘Putting on the Ritz’ in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, and he isn’t funny in Skyfall. But he does make a grim gag now and again – returning from his supposed grave he says he has been ‘enjoying death’ – he is less righteous, he is damaged, and he thinks. He is – what do you call it? – acting. And the film is often funny, even if its psychoanalytic freight finally tugs it down.