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No Time to Die: James Bond, Daniel Craig and the End of an Era


This review contains spoilers for No Time to Die

 

You only live twice

Once when you were born

And once when you look death in the face

-        Ian Fleming

 

Daniel Craig has been the incumbent James Bond longer than any other actor (though Sean Connery did return after his original run in a non-official Bond film, Never Say Never Again). Craig has been James Bond for fifteen years, since Casino Royale in 2006. He’s been 007 longer than Ian Fleming wrote James Bond books, which was thirteen years between 1953 and 1966.

Connery and Roger Moore may have made two more films than Craig, but neither of their runs were as consistently good as the latest actor in the role. From Russia with Love and Diamonds Are Forever have completely different tones. Live and Let Die and A View to a Kill feel like entirely different genres.

With the release of No Time to Die (NTTD), Daniel Craig’s time as James Bond has come to an end. And his final film is full of subtle references to the movies and novels that came before.

Nearly all of the first twenty official James Bond movies were standalone. It was very rare for characters to return or for references to be made to previous adventures. Sylvia Trench was a love interest for James Bond in his first two films. And there was occasional references to Bond’s wife after she died in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS).

The Craig era has contained many recurring supporting characters and story threads, weaved from his first film through to his last. Quantum of Solace is a direct sequel to Casino Royale, playing almost like an epilogue to the original film. Skyfall made oblique references to Craig’s first two films – and threw in a few nods to previous eras, because of its release during the 50th anniversary year of the film franchise.

Spectre tried even harder to pull previous story threads into a coherent narrative, but mostly bungled it – making everything that came before even more convoluted than you might expect from a Bond film. And yet, it continued one of the great traditions of Craig’s tenure – dropping in further iconic elements of Bond’s legacy: the titular villainous organisation “Spectre” and Bond’s nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. And while I think those elements weren’t well used in that film, they turn out to be great set up for No Time to Die.

Craig’s fifth and final film remixes elements from previous films and Fleming’s novels in a way the franchise has never really attempted before. The early films were pretty much faithful adaptations of the books and only later did they carve out chunks of short stories to help the movies stay connected to the original Fleming adventures.

The Living Daylights in 1987 uses a short story as the jumping off point for an adventure that Fleming never would have conceived of. Licence to Kill drops in a plot point from the novel Live and Let Die that the film version never used. Pierce Brosnan’s Goldeneye was named after Fleming’s home in Jamaica – and that’s about the last direct reference to his life and work that Brosnan’s era ever attempted to make.

Casino Royale in 2006 got to be a faithful rendering of the original novel, while fleshing it out to be movie-length. The tense card game of the book translates to the movie well. The characters of Le Chiffre and Vesper Lynde feel like they’ve stepped off Fleming’s page, though 2006 Vesper has a lot more agency than 1953 Vesper – even if their endings are exactly the same.

No Time to Die feels a lot like the TV series Hannibal, which is a re-imagining of Thomas Harris’ various Hannibal Lecter novels. The film knows a lot of us have seen the movies and read the books and there’s a certain frisson when noticing how the ingredients are combined to achieve a different result. Hannibal begins as a precursor to the Lecter character of the books, but then subsequent seasons start to adapt the novels in strange and unusual ways.

(There’s a direct connection between the two franchises, of course – Mads Mikklesen plays Hannibal in the TV series and Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. And in No Time to Die, Blofeld acts as a kind of Lecter figure – caught in Spectre, now trapped in a cage, giving information to Bond to help him untangle another villain’s origin.)

The film drops us into the backstory of Madeleine Swann, the first Bond girl to return to the series since Sylvia Trench, and the daughter of a previous villain. With her history further complicated, we join her and a retired James Bond living their lives in Italy, weighed down by their own histories but determined to have a future together.

This feels like the culmination of James Bond’s journey to take his armour off, that began in Casino Royale with his relationship to Vesper. Letting his guard down there led to betrayal and he’s been the cynical, hard-edged agent ever since. Until he met Madeleine in Spectre; which plays as a parallel to his meeting Tracy – his eventual wife – in Fleming’s books.

In fact, early in No Time to Die, the hotel concierge refers to Madeleine as James Bond’s wife – even though there’s no evidence they’ve actually been married, the film wants us to feel the weight of this relationship. Bond goes to visit Vesper’s grave, which he does in Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, before meeting, falling in love and marrying Tracy.

James even says to Madeleine, as they reaffirm their commitment to put their pasts behind them – “we have all the time in the world”, a line from the book and the film version of OHMSS.

(After the Sony Hack in 2014, it was revealed that this line was originally scripted as the final line of the film Spectre. At the time, I was annoyed by the idea that the film would steal that iconic line for re-use in a context where it wasn’t earned, emotionally. Letting it drop early in NTTD was a much smarter idea.)

By the time the opening credits roll, though, Bond has felt betrayed by Madeleine and his armour is on again, protecting himself from any and all emotional baggage.

No Time to Die is about the fall-out from all kinds of relationships and it forms a pretty direct sequel to Spectre, at least character-wise. Bond has fallen in love with Madeleine but she is the daughter of a Spectre operative. Bond’s new M, introduced in Skyfall but properly established in Spectre, is not the mentor his previous boss was. Blofeld might be in prison but his evil organisation still exists. And the man that killed Madeleine’s mother has returned with the most super villain plan of all of Daniel Craig’s era – which has mostly been about terrorism, resources and personal vendettas. Safin wants to control the world.

As the culmination of the story of Daniel Craig’s James Bond, is No Time to Die a fitting farewell?

James Bond has a licence to kill but he also indirectly causes other people’s deaths. Vesper in Casino Royale. M in Skyfall. Felix Leiter in No Time to Die. The people he was closest to are gone. People are sacrificed during Bond’s efforts to save the world. He may not have killed these three, but they died because of him. Felix’s death here is a clear visual call-back to Vesper’s death.

And while Bond feels betrayed by Madeleine in much of this film, by the time they reconnect, their indelible connection remains – not just because of their professions of love, but because Madeleine has given birth to a daughter by Bond, named Mathilde.

If this feels too much like soap opera, there is history for it in the canon of Fleming’s work, in the end of his novel You Only Live Twice (the film version bears little resemblance to it). If OHMSS is the film that this film pays homage to the most, the book that NTTD most resembles is YOLT. In fact, You Only Live Twice is the novel that deals with the emotional fallout from OHMSS – the death of Tracy and Bond seeking revenge on Blofeld, whose hench-woman killed her.

By the end of YOLT, Bond is presumed dead and he’s settled down with a woman in Japan. He has lost his memory and Suki is pregnant with his child. This was the last book published during Fleming’s lifetime. His follow-up, The Man with the Golden Gun, tries to rehabilitate Bond – after “killing him off” for the second time.

Bond finds Blofeld in Japan and their climactic fight is in Blofeld’s Garden of Death. This is the direct inspiration for Safin’s supervillain lair here. Bond kills Blofeld in the book while yelling “Die Blofeld die!” which is the same thing he yells in NTTD as he strangles him.

The garden of death sequence is one of the most memorable in all of Fleming’s novels and it’s surprising it has taken over fifty years for the films to design an equivalent, even if it mostly has no bearing on the outcome of this film. NTTD is more concerned about world domination than one-on-one fights to the death.

What the film does focus on is Bond falling in love and the question of sacrifice in his world. So many people have died by his hand or by his side. What if James is finally faced with death himself? Is that where he lives for the second time?

The super villain plan is about DNA and nanobots and assassination, which is wild, but it’s also key to James Bond’s final sacrifice. If the Daniel Craig era of films has been a slow reckoning with the icons of films past and the novels on which they are based, the final act of NTTD is to deal with one last element of Fleming’s work that the films have never touched. Killing Bond off.

Ian Fleming killed Bond at the end of From Russia with Love, expecting to put the secret agent behind him. But the books were too popular and Bond was back in Dr No. Just a few years later, that book would become the first Bond film. And the rest is history.

But You Only Live Twice did kill him off for all intents and purposes, too. It’s what lead to M writing his obituary, which was referenced in Skyfall, when he was presumed dead in that movie, too. Daniel Craig’s bond has been closer to death than any other film version. So, it’s fitting that he’s now done what none of the others have done on screen. Sacrificed himself to save the world.

There’s an emotional component to this sacrifice that I won’t spoil here – a real kick in the guts that means his sacrifice is both motivated by saving the world but also driven by his love of Madeleine and Mathilde. I never expect to be moved by James Bond movies, but this film did it two or three times to great effect.

2022 is the 60th Anniversary of Dr No being released. No Time to Die has a few references to that film in it, but it’s also a combination of so much James Bond history on the screen and on the page. It’s an early gift in celebration.

M reads this passage, which is lifted directly from You Only Live Twice as an addendum to his obituary – “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

Daniel Craig's time as James Bond has come to an end. There may be no good time to die, but if it must end, let it end like this.

A superb achievement.

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