Playing the endgame: is Daniel Craig making his final moves as James Bond in Spectre?

There's something to be said for this minimal, brooding Bond - but all the emblems of the end are there.

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Occasionally it has been rumoured that James Bond might go into therapy, or come out as gay, or be played by a black actor (or all three). The most tantalising story doing the rounds about Spectre was that it would show 007 on his toughest mission yet, despatched to locate a tune or melody in Sam Smith’s theme song. Some tasks, though, are beyond even Bond. There is nothing as exciting in Spectre as the arrival of a female M (Judi Dench) in GoldenEye. But he does finally receive some therapy, administered by Dr Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who
then helps him track down Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), the head of an international network of super-villains. Bond baddies have distinguishing emblems of evil (a scar, a deadly bowler hat) and Oberhauser, with his shamelessness in the wearing of loafers without socks, is no exception.

Suggestions that it will be Daniel Craig’s swansong in the part have been fuelled no end by the actor confessing he would rather be strapped to Goldfinger’s torture table with a laser pointed directly at his quantum of solace than ever play Bond again. The film drops hints to this effect. Bond is first seen wearing a skull mask during Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. Back in London, he learns that plans are afoot to sack him. Switching on a radio, he gets a blast of “New York, New York” (“Start spreading the news/I’m leaving today”). It’s like combing the cover of Abbey Road for clues that Paul is dead.

The air of mourning contributes to the film’s plodding, funereal pace. Yet there is something to be said for its desolate look. It has an eloquent cinematographer in Hoyte van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), whose work has a powdery, granular quality. The colour scheme runs almost to sepia at times, but there is also a stark funeral scene among Roman pillars where the attention to architecture recalls Antonioni.

Should Craig play Bond again, he could scarcely push his minimalism any further. He is pared down to samurai essentials: striding and scowling, he is frugal even in violence, never throwing two punches where one will do. At one point, he stems an attack simply by telling his assailant: “Stay.” If looks could kill, he wouldn’t even bother drawing his gun. But then the emphasis in Craig’s four outings has been on the psychological. Sam Mendes is not the only director to have been called back for multiple assignments in the series but he may be the first to have nurtured a theme over consecutive films. Skyfall was essentially a dysfunctional family drama where M betrayed one of her former spies (or sons). In Spectre there is more domestic scar tissue. Oberhauser is fatherless, as is Dr Swann, while Bond is mourning the death of his adoptive father. It’s a support group waiting to happen.

Bond’s professional family is also in tatters now that the weaselly mandarin C (Andrew Scott), as boss of the Joint Intelligence Service, is increasing remote surveillance powers. The new M (Ralph Fiennes) gives a speech about the value of old-fashioned spying over drones. “A licence to kill is also a licence not to kill,” he says. It’s a romantic notion, easy enough to stand by when you’ve got a team of screenwriters to ensure that Bond never puts a bullet wrong (there are four credited, including the playwright Jez Butterworth). In the realm of the spectacular, they are not always so confident. Even fantasy needs verisimilitude, and if you’re going to have your hero producing planes out of thin air, miles from any apparent airstrip, as Bond does, why stop there? Surely no need for a plane. Just have him zoom through the air, arms outstretched.

M establishes himself as Bond’s surrogate father the moment he grounds him at the start of the film. But the children of MI6 all rally round when Dad is in trouble, so that C must face down both M and Q, which is, at the very least, the start of an unpromising hand in Scrabble. It all descends to the level of the schoolyard when C says that M means “Moron”. Bond speculates naughtily on what C might stand for, and tells Oberhauser: “Nothing could be as painful as listening to you talk.” (All that’s missing is a “Nur!”.) Taunting Bond about his affection for Dr Swann, Oberhauser even draws a love-heart on steamed-up glass. It’s at times like these that you miss Judi Dench as M. She’d have sent the lot of them to bed without any supper. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?