A salvation story
Lisa Fraser offers a personal take on the new James Bond film, No Time To Die.
Warning: this article contains spoilers.
The latest James Bond film No Time to Die marks a turning point in our collective Covid recovery: even people who avoided crowded, enclosed spaces are flocking back to cinemas – including me. After six long years of waiting, the James Bond nerd that I am wasn’t disappointed. (I confess: I even did a course on James Bond studies at university!)
No Time to Die is smashing records – $525 million at the box office worldwide so far. Like the previous Bond films, which tackled the burning issues of their time, from the Cold War to environmental issues, No Time to Die plays with our most present fears: this time, James Bond saves the world from a global threat to public health.
As we’re coming out of a global pandemic, we need to know we will be alright; we need hope. And that no doubt is one of the reasons why we are booking tickets for this film: we seek certainty in the midst of an uncertain world, we want to know that a hero is taking care of us, and that all shall be well. I would argue there is more depth to the Bond franchise but the audience is on board with this basic concept that we want to be saved from the threats all around us.
Salvation can take different shapes. In his great work The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien described a form of salvation that came from a long process of inner transformation, based on fellowship and mutual support. The Bond universe is different, as it describes a form of salvation that comes through a ‘saviour’, a man who is ‘consecrated’ – literally, cōnsecrāre – ‘to set apart from the common’.
Bond is made of stronger stuff than the rest of us; he can do what we, humble mortals, can’t.
The solace he offers doesn’t require us to struggle or to change; it is painless for us. He offers it on a silver platter. All we need to do is fork out for the cinema ticket and sit back.
It’s easy to see why the concept is so appealing during a global pandemic. We’ve been struggling for months to keep our jobs or to take care of our families; now we crave for simple, painless answers to our problems. How comforting it is to know that someone is in charge – of us, of the world, and of our global destiny. As the villain Lyutsifer Safin puts it: “We want to be told how to live and then die when we’re not looking. People want oblivion, and a few of us are born to build it for them.”
The franchise clearly explores the relationship, if not the antagonism, between protagonist and observer, those who shape the world through their extraordinary actions and those who follow from the sidelines.
Recently in the UK, we started praising very publicly the miracles performed by the National Health Service and other key workers – and rightly so. The pandemic has revealed that we crave role models, people who embody values like self-sacrifice and dedication. James Bond incarnates these values: he works relentlessly for the safety of others; he sacrifices his life – figuratively and literally – for the greater good; duty, for this particular secret agent, comes first. The man and the vocation are so identified as to be indistinguishable.
His friends act in the same way: Q sacrifices his love life for his duty; Felix knows he is risking his life during his missions, even though he has a wife and a daughter waiting for him at home. In the Bond universe, Bond is not the exception. He lives in an environment where the virtues of generosity, self-sacrifice and dedication are not lip service, but a lifestyle choice.
Our interest in James Bond himself, and in the universe he inhabits, raises questions about our own expectations for society. Are we longing for a world where values are more manifest, more publicly expressed? It also raises a more personal question:
Are we attracted to these characters because we’re craving to find our own vocation, which we think we would embrace unreservedly, and thus reveal our true potential, as Bond, Q and Felix do?
These personal questions also arise because over the last five films Daniel Craig has played the most intimate, psychologically rich James Bond of the entire series.
Gone is the era when Bond films were about gadgets and the world’s end. James’ taste for alcohol has now turned into substance abuse. His fierce independence has become a trust issue. Bond is not only an agent with a mission, he’s a human being with shadows and cracks. Bond is equally trying to save the world and to save his soul. While he saves life on Earth, he struggles with the meaning of his own life.
In the early films, Bond was depicted as a lone wolf, mostly dealing with issues that only spies face. It was pure escapism. The more recent films have revealed that his inner turmoil is actually relatable, affected by issues such as a broken family, loss of parents and loved ones. The new films are emotionally brutal, because Bond’s brokenness resonates with what many of us experience, living in a society plagued by divorce, break-ups, and diseases.
Most of the characters in No Time to Die have been broken by life events that were bigger than them, and which they didn’t choose.
They’re lonely creatures who’ve faced too many deaths and losses and who are scarred for life. As the villain Lyutsifer Safin points out to Bond: “I could be speaking to my own reflection.”
This allows an interesting dynamic to emerge, where the characters, having experienced similar traumas, feel able to open up to each other. Thus the main question becomes: why and what do we choose to reveal to people around us? How far can we go in sharing our brokenness, without losing their love, and while remaining safe? The film doesn’t give a clear-cut answer.
But the film does makes clear that how we behave with the people who are close to us is a core component of our redemption, or our fall.
Our main freedom is to decide if we choose light or darkness, trust or distrust, openness or defiance – and these choices powerfully shape our life.
Safin tries to instil the idea that a traumatic past is a curse which will haunt us and our loved ones for life. In his view, past traumas condemn us to loneliness: “We are both poisoned with heartbreak. Two heroes in a tragedy of our own making. Everyone we touch, we are their curse.”
This argument is tempting, especially as we see in the film how broken people tend to surround themselves with other equally broken people. But No Time to Die is one of the few Bond films (together with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, whose main musical theme is re-used here) in which James Bond is seen to overcome his traumas and to try to project himself into the future.
Bond’s relationship with Madeleine proves Safin wrong: these two broken hearts have learned how to open up and forgive each other and, ultimately, create something greater than their past hurts, which takes the form of a child, Mathilde.
Bond’s new hope is made visible in the Hollywoodian scene where the mother and daughter glide on the sea as the sun rises, shining over their angel-like faces.
This is possibly the most positive message of the film, that sometimes events we didn’t choose have plagued our past, but it’s our reaction to these events which shapes our present and future.
Even though the soil where we were planted first was scorched, we are not the mere victims of destiny. As Bond points out to Safin, in a oh-so-British understatement: “We’ve made slightly different choices.”
However, the film doesn’t say what makes broken human beings make the choices they make: why did Safin choose death, and Bond and Madeleine choose life? There is no definite answer given. We see only how choosing love changes a person from within. In the short period of time in which Bond hopes that a better future might be possible, some signs emerge of the kind of man he could become.
The Bond series has often been criticised as materialistic, with intense merchandising and product placement. Bond (the character), however, does not actively promote these values: yes, he drives fancy cars and uses high-tech gadgets, which he often treats carelessly. But his carelessness mostly reflects the fact that he is detached from material goods.
His repeated experiences of loss and traumas broke him in a way that the material world couldn’t repair. But as soon as he let his heart be touched, he became able to recognise what is truly valuable in life: the main example is when he loses precious seconds in his plan to save the world, just to rescue Mathilde’s doudou (soft toy) from the bunker.
Some fans were upset that the screenwriters ‘killed’ Bond when he finally started healing. In my view, Bond is not killed, so much as he chooses to retain control over his life – acting here again in a quasi-messianic way.
Bond’s life was heavily influenced by a long series of tragic losses: Tracy, Vesper, M, even his ‘brother’ Felix. But he continued to fight, like an animal in survival mode – Safin actually compares Bond to an animal.
In No Time to Die, the missiles that come in Bond’s direction are no more lethal than the ones he faced in previous films; the bullet he receives in his leg is not more painful than the one he received in Skyfall.
The difference is that through the love of Madeleine and Mathilde, he has had a glimpse of a new horizon.
He has discovered the power of loving and being loved in equal measure, and the healing power of what could be a family.
He has tasted what it is to embrace vocation not as a saviour of the world, but as a way of finding true fulfilment.
When he realises he will never be able to follow this path, because Safin has infected him, Bond refuses to go back to his past life. Love has changed him so deeply that he can’t bear the idea. Bond is not killed by a challenge that is too big for him, rather, he makes the conscious decision to refuse a loveless life, a life where he wouldn’t be truly human. After decades of watching Bond films where we struggled to see the man in the spy, this ending is a complete reversal. We struggle to see the spy in the man.
Lyutsifer Safin believed in curses. In this film, Bond has demonstrated that human beings can transcend past brokenness and build something beyond darkness.
Bond dies but he dies as a loved man, and a man who loves. That, itself, is a success.
It’s also a relief to think that Bond has finally found peace – and so has the actor Daniel Craig. Yet, the mood was one of gloom when we left the cinema on this cold autumn night. We’ve been saved once more; but this time James Bond has left us a messy world, and he will not come back to help us next time.
Perhaps it is time to take responsibility for our own salvation, and that of our world.
Enjoy this article? Click here to take a read of a recent article by Hajra Rehman on the importance of classic films and the theatre.
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