His last James Bond movie, Skyfall, is the most successful British film ever. (No pressure, then.) As he prepares for the release of the follow-up, Spectre, Daniel Craig reflects on a decade in which he has redefined the once cartoonish secret agent as a symbol of masculinity for the modern age: embattled, conflicted, but still standing, still ready to take on the world
It’s 10 years since Daniel Craig was announced as the sixth official screen incarnation of Britain’s least secret agent, following, as every schoolboy knows, Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan. It’s fair to say the news of his casting did not occasion impromptu street parties up and down the nation, or thousands of British parents naming their first-born sons Daniel (or, indeed, Craig) in his honour.
By almost universal consent, Craig was too young, too blond (too blond!) and not nearly suave – or, perhaps, glib – enough. The man himself seemed somewhat discomfited, too. He had spent the previous two decades building a career for himself as an actor of ferocious intensity, a specialist in wounded masculinity on stage and screen, in the kind of plays – A Number – and films – Sylvia (2003), The Mother (2003), Enduring Love (2004) – that most fans of big budget stunts-and-shunts movies hadn’t necessarily seen, lacking both opportunity and inclination, and perhaps imagination.
Even Sam Mendes, Bond aficionado and director of Skyfall and Spectre, recently admitted he originally felt the casting of Craig could have been a mistake. Crazily, in retrospect, the feeling was he was too serious an actor, too searching, too saturnine. Our expectations of Bond, after decades of increasingly preposterous hijinks and larky one-liners, were hardly stratospheric. The franchise, once seen as cool, even sophisticated – though never, until recently, cerebral – had become a corny joke.
“Austin Powers fucked it,” was Craig’s typically bald appraisal of the situation pre-2006, when I talked to him about it last time. In other words, the films had gone beyond parody. “By the time we did Casino Royale, [Mike Myers] had blown every joke apart. We were in a situation where you couldn’t send things up. It had gone so far post-modern it wasn’t funny any more.”
Craig changed all that. His Bond is hard but not cold. He’s haunted by a traumatic childhood. He is not inured to violence; cut Craig’s 007 and he bleeds. And he loves and loses, in spectacular fashion.
First in Casino Royale (2006), which was as much tragic romance as action thriller, and in which Bond – Ian Fleming’s “blunt instrument” – was revealed as painfully vulnerable, physically and emotionally.
“I would ask you if you could remain emotionally detached, but I don’t think that’s your problem, is it, Bond?” Judi Dench’s M asks him in that film. It turns out to be precisely his problem. He falls in love with a woman who is his equal in every way, including the tormented past. “I have no armour left,” he tells her, “you’ve stripped it from me.” But he can’t save her. That story continues in Quantum of Solace (2008), a revenge drama-cum-chase movie, albeit one hobbled by a Hollywood writers’ strike. Craig played Bond as grief-stricken and fuelled by righteous anger.
Skyfall (2012), described by Craig and Mendes as a return to “classic Bond”, reintroduced many of the gags and much of the glamour familiar from earlier films, as well as beloved characters – Q, Moneypenny – previously conspicuous by their absence from Craig-era Bond. But it also developed the theme of Bond in extremis: shot, presumed drowned, then ragged and cynical, and entangled in a weird Oedipal psychodrama with Javier Bardem’s cyber-terrorist and Dench’s mummy figure, M.
The cartoonish elements – the exotic locations, the evil megalomaniacs, the fast women, the suicidal driving, the techno gadgetry – were back, but Craig’s moody intensity was very much present and correct. He doesn’t do a lot of sunny romcoms. His characters, Bond included, tend to be somewhat wracked. “You meet somebody who is at the best part of their life when they’re really happy and everything’s great, I’m not sure how interesting that is cinematically,” he says. The essence of drama is conflict, and Craig’s Bond is nothing if not conflicted. Apart from anything else, he keeps trying to resign his commission.