The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part IV

Bond’s actions in Madagascar have repercussions, both for his employers and for his foes. When Le Chiffre receives the news of Mollaka’s death, he’s hosting a private poker game on his private yacht. (One of the participants, Madame Wu, is played by Tsai Chin, who appeared in 1967’s You Only Live Twice. Her character reappears during the high stakes poker game later in the film.)

Casino Royale has a clear sense of the psychology and bearing of its protagonist, but flounders a bit when it comes to its antagonist. Bond’s introductory scenes are tight and confident, but Le Chiffre’s initial scenes feel less like fleshed-out scenes than a list of bullet-points: Le Chiffre uses an inhaler, he weeps blood from a wounded eye, he calculates advanced statistics with ease, he loves poker, he plays the stock market, he becomes vaguely threatening when he encounters an obstacle.

At least Mikkelsen infuses the character with an icy menace that prefigures his extremely memorable turn as Hannibal Lecter (although his Le Chiffre has very little of Lecter’s twisted hedonism). One of the pleasures of Mikkelsen’s performance lies in the way his composure gradually breaks down as he meets with setback after setback until we reach his nasty, desperate final moments with Bond.

The material introducing Bond’s superior, M, plays a bit better. As I noted earlier, Judi Dench’s M is the most significant holdover from the Brosnan Bond years. Dench entered the franchise to memorable effect in 1995’s GoldenEye as an embodiment of the shifting sexual and international politics in the wake of the Cold War. Brosnan’s Bond went through some rough patches with M, and she chastised him now and again, but a clear fondness developed between them. If what they shared wasn’t quite friendship, it was nevertheless a warm, mutual respect and trust.

The Craig films build a different trajectory. The Brosnan films present M as a newcomer, fighting to establish a new path after the Cold War, but the Craig films present her as a world-weary, scarred veteran of the secret service. The uneasy respect between Bond and M comes with some substantial suspicion, as well as a note of codependency (something Skyfall will accentuate and develop to great effect).

This “distant mother”/”wayward son” dynamic serves as an extension of the Craig era’s heavy emphasis on Bond’s psychology. Casino Royale will only lightly touch on the way the death of Bond’s parents plays into their dynamic, but that’s enough to invite us to fill in the gaps.

Dench’s first scene here plays to her widely-recognized talent for extracting humor from displays of grouchy exasperation. The scene lays things on a bit thick; Dench has been able to do more with less, and she seems to be straining just to keep up with all the wordy dialogue. Additionally, M’s indignance seems somewhat unwarranted given the circumstances.

Her “I miss the Cold War” stinger repositions the franchise in alignment with a new political landscape. As the following installments will emphasize to an even greater degree, the realm of espionage is murkier, the lines between the heroes and villains less clear. These early scenes in Casino Royale set the stage for an ongoing struggle between Bond, M, and the political bureaucracy that will carry on throughout all four Craig adventures.

Indeed, this Bond has an anti-authoritarian streak that far exceeds that of his predecessors (who, outside of a few instances, acted like professionals following orders, even if they bent the rules on occasion). Only in movieland could breaking-in to his superior’s apartment, the location of which is apparently a state secret, be anything other than a career-ending violation (to say nothing of stealing his superior’s credentials and hacking into her computer!).

Reading Skyfall back into Casino Royale enriches this scene by suggesting that M’s relationship with Bond is actually the latest iteration in a series. Skyfall reveals that M is instinctually-drawn to surrogate son figures with exceptional talents and a willingness to flout the rules, which provides a kind of explanation for her willingness to overlook Bond’s substantial shortcomings.

M discovers Bond in her apartment just after he has made use of her (Sony) computer, which apparently has unique access to a call-tracing program. How Bond got her password, address, or name is left a mystery. When questioned about it, Bond becomes smug, a brief reappearance of the know-it-all Bond of old. I like to imagine that Bond actually seduced the information out of a lower-level MI6 clerk. (Curiously, the suggestion that M’s identity is a state secret will never really come up again in these movies. For what it’s worth, props used in the making of Skyfall list M’s real name as Olivia Mansfield.)

“We’re trying to figure out how an entire network of terrorist groups is financed and you give us one bomb maker. Hardly the big picture, wouldn’t you say?”

Coming to understand “the big picture” isn’t just the nature of Bond’s character arc in Casino Royale, but it’s actually the arc of all four Craig films, and it plays out on both personal and political levels. We’ll have more to say about the ways the later films play into that when we get there.

“I understand double-0’s have a very short life expectancy, so your mistake will be short-lived.”

Craig delivers this line, a surrogate child’s bitter rejoinder to a surrogate parent, with melancholy self-awareness. He’s acutely aware of his own death wish.

“So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman?”

Craig’s Bond compares himself to clergymen with surprising consistency. He does so here, and then later in Quantum of Solace and Spectre. (Skyfall might offer a childhood rationale for this, due to the priest hole and chapel that lies on the Bond family grounds.) Like a priest, Bond has set himself apart from the rest of society, but while a priest gives life, Bond takes it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s