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Why Jamie Bell should be the next James Bond

His performance in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is just the latest sign he should replace Daniel Craig.

When I got home last week from seeing Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, the story of the romance in the late 1970s between a budding young actor, Peter Turner, and the ageing-but-undimmed actress Gloria Grahame, I rushed to my laptop. The film had been engrossing, and the lead performances by Jamie Bell and Annette Bening carefully crafted, but a thought had struck me toward the end of the movie and now I needed to find out whether it had occurred to anyone else.

I entered the words “Jamie Bell, James Bond” into an online search engine, certain that I would be the first person to have hit upon this outlandish curveball prediction. The match of actor and role made perfect sense to me, and not only because Bell could bring his own monogrammed towels and handkerchiefs from home when playing Bond.

I could just see myself sitting down to write this very blog, beginning with the words: “You read it here first…” And then, a few years down the line, I would be declared the Nostradamus of film writing, peering into my crystal ball and searching among the tea leaves to answer those timeless questions. Will superhero movies ever end? Who exactly are the last 29 people in the country still choosing to see 3D films? When will the point of George Clooney become clear?

Alas, it was not to be. “You read it here 217th” would be closer to the truth. It seems there has been no shortage of reports and speculation linking Bell to the role of Bond, which Daniel Craig indicated earlier this year he will play for one final time. (“I think this is it,” Craig told US TV host Stephen Colbert. “I just want to go out on a high note and I can’t wait.”) 

The rumours that Bell was in the running began in spring 2016, when he was seen in conversation with Barbara Broccoli, one of the producers of the Bond series. That meeting was easily explained by the fact that Broccoli’s Eon Productions was then in the process of getting Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool off the ground.

In recent weeks, the stories have started resurfacing, what with the new film coming out, and the arrival of a Netflix thriller, 6 Days, set during the 1980 siege of the Iranian Embassy in London, in which Bell plays a Lance Corporal in the SAS. Film Stars reminds us he can do dramatic and deep; 6 Days promises to show his running, jumping and shooting side. Is this a Bond audition or what?

A quick glance at the odds shows Bell to be currently languishing somewhere between 12/1 and 25/1. Whatever the pundits and bookmakers might be saying, I hope it happens. Though Bell achieved celebrity status at 14 with Billy Elliot, he has been under the radar for a long time; audiences have grown so accustomed to him that it usually goes unremarked that he is a careful, attentive actor.

In Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, he handles deftly a character who might easily have come across as self-serving, a rider of glamorous Hollywood coat-tails. Bell brings to Peter Turner a sparkling optimism and effervescence. Compare a similar part and performance – Eddie Redmayne’s thoroughly creepy turn as temporary confidante to another Hollywood legend, in My Week with Marilyn – and you start to get a sense of the traps sidestepped by both actor and film. 

Bening does exceptional work, too, and the connection between her and Bell, which no amount of lighting, editing or music could have fabricated, is palpable. If she is getting less attention here, that’s only because, “Star of The Grifters, The Kids Are All Right and 20th Century Women in excellent performance shock” isn’t much of a story.

Bell’s greatest hits, on the other hand, have been largely overlooked, though each of them contains clues that point toward a surprising and unpredictable Bond. Like Craig, he has plenty of eccentric, high-risk parts on his CV, such as Undertow, David Gordon Green’s lushly-coloured Night of the Hunter-style adult fairy tale, Bong Joon-ho’s deranged Snowpiercer, and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dear Wendy, from a script by Lars Von Trier, in which he plays a boy who worships a gun.

He showed his cruel and dangerous side, always a plus for any potential Bond, in another film for Von Trier, Nymphomaniac, where he brought a streak of wryness to a small part as an icy professional sadist. 

He’s done thoughtful action movies (bromancing with Channing Tatum in The Eagle, and playing Craig’s actual bro in Defiance) and performance-capture (The Adventures of Tintin). The film to see if you want to witness him at his best is Hallam Foe, where he brings impossible sprightliness and joy to the role of an emotionally-bruised voyeur-cum-stalker who scampers around the rooftops of Edinburgh. 

Naturally you are free to scoff at my Bond/Bell prediction. But if it does come to pass, please remember you read it here 217th.

“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is on release. “6 Days” is now streaming on Netflix

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.

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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia