Monday, November 15, 2021

No Time to Die: Bonding

Daniel Craig and Léa Seydoux in No Time to Die.

The James Bond pictures that Daniel Craig has starred in over the past decade and a half – Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, Spectre and the new No Time to Die – are not equally good, but they’re unified by a sense of melancholy and an elegiac quality. The painful past gets revisited; characters we care about die – significantly, of course, M, played by Judi Dench, in Skyfall, the high point of the nearly sixty-year-old series. In that sublime film, Bond returns to his childhood home on the Scottish coast to battle a villain who was once a double agent himself, using his mastery of old-school warrior skills to hobble a computer wizard representing a merciless contemporary world. No Time to Die resurrects the past in its opening section. It begins with a flashback: a child whose father is an assassin watches as the only survivor of a family he wiped out shoots her mother, and then, mysteriously, saves her (as we later learn) when, running away from him, she falls through the ice. After the credits (and a standout theme song, written by Billie Eilish and Finneas and performed by Eilish), that child grows up to become the therapist Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who appeared in Spectre. In the present she’s happily married to a retired Bond, who assures her as they drive through the Italian countryside, “We have all the time in the world.” Bond aficionados will recognize the ominous allusion. At the end of the 1969 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond (played in that film by George Lazenby) utters the same promise to his bride (Diana Rigg) as they begin their honeymoon, but the movie ends moments later with her murder – the first downbeat finale of any Bond picture, and the most affecting scene in the series until M’s demise in Skyfall. The echo in No Time to Die is a reminder, of course, that no one has all the time in the world, and that the clock is ticking.

James and Madeleine are in Italy because she has convinced him that he needs to visit the grave of Vesper Lynd, the woman he lost in Casino Royale, to make his peace with that part of his past. But when he shows up there assassins in the employ of Ernst Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), the head of SPECTRE, whom he succeeded in sending to prison at the end of the last film, blow up her tomb. Bond gets away, but, sure Madeleine has betrayed him, he walks away from her, he believes forever. Five years pass before he’s enticed out of retirement by his old CIA pal Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), for a mission in Cuba that involves a renegade Russian scientist (David Dencik) and a deadly poison that wipes out all of SPECTRE except for the incarcerated Blofeld. Its complications bring Bond back to MI6, where there’s a new 007, a wry stunner named Nomi (Lashana Lynch) – and they also put him back in touch with Madeleine, who has been treating the reportedly insane Blofeld in prison. (She’s the only person he’ll speak to.) And she crosses paths with the man who shot her mother and pulled her out of the ice, a sibilant psychopath with the unsubtle moniker Lyutsifer Safin (a supremely creepy performance by Rami Malek).

At first the movie is rather somber. You can see how it’s supposed to work – like the mournful opening scenes of The Bourne Supremacy, where Matt Damon’s Bourne suffers the devastating loss of the woman he loves (Franka Potente). But the director of No Time to Die, Cary Joji Fukunaga, doesn’t seem entirely in control of the material:  the violence is shot too close in, and the tonal shifts feel clunky. Once he gets to Cuba, though, and Ana de Armas makes a sensational entrance as Felix’s agent Paloma (she’s much more effective here than she was as the protagonist of Knives Out), the movie relaxes and the parts of the extremely complicated screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Fukunaga fall much more easily into place. There’s a lot here for Fukunaga to maneuver – No Time to Die is nearly three hours long. But he finds his way. It’s wonderful to see the familiar supporting cast again: Ralph Fiennes as M, Ben Whishaw as Q, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, Rory Kinnear as Tanner as well as Wright as Felix, who is given a lovely exit. They help to ground the movie emotionally as well as to reboot the Bond wit and humor that are notably missing in the first forty minutes. (Much as I always enjoyed the MI6 folks in the Sean Connery days, they were all personality; they weren’t master actors like this crew.) There’s a delicious scene that marks James’s return to MI6, where the combined presence of two 007 throws everyone into confusion that’s understated in distinctly British style. And Christoph Waltz gets a nifty interlude as Blofeld, whom James visits in prison (which is, of course, where he’s thrown together with Madeleine).

Daniel Craig seemed fatigued in his last outing as Bond (and Specter was very disappointing overall). But he’s superb here – even better than he was in Skyfall. If the supporting cast of regulars restores the charm of the series, Craig, in tandem with the soulful Sedoux, gives the movie its depth. Bond’s tense reunion with Madeleine is extremely affecting, and Sedoux has some tender exchanges with a young actress with uncanny camera instincts named Lisa-Dorah Sonnet, who plays Madeleine’s four-year-old daughter. But the movie is framed as a showcase for Craig, who made it clear from the outset that this would be his last appearance as Bond. The crux of his portrayal of the character is that it exposes the famously controlled double agent’s emotional fault lines; somehow Craig manages to simultaneously recalibrate Bond’s elegant and slightly tart persona while turning him inside out.

As one expects, the film extends the visual pleasures of the series. The photographer, Linus Sandgren, has made impressive contributions to his collaborations with David O. Russell and Damien Chazelle, but I enjoyed his work here far more. The climactic scenes on an obscure island near both Russia and Japan, where Safin unfolds his demonic scheme, are beautifully designed by Mark Tildesley. Casino Royale brought a strikingly fresh feel to the Bond franchise: the chases were largely on foot, and their athleticism undercut the extravagant mechanics that many of us had grown weary of. Skyfall promoted outdated virtues like loyalty and undervalued skills like pragmatism over political strategizing and game-playing; it built to a triumph for members of a generation of problem solvers that people had stopped listening to. No Time to Die works differently from either of those earlier pictures.  Its setpiece sequences sometimes recall those from other Bond films in what seems like a tribute to what has gone before in this staggeringly long-running series. The movie’s feeling, which animates those sequences, is located in Daniel Craig. With the help of the quartet of screenwriters, he turns No Time to Die into the first Bond movie that is a tour de force for its leading actor.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.  

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