Monday, September 24, 2012

Unexpected happy ending: The Lives Of Others and Casino Royale

So we've had Scottish Bond, Australian Bond (in a kilt), the return of Scottish Bond (dressed up as somebody's idea of a Japanese fisherman), old age pensioner Bond, Actor Bond, Smarmy Bond, and, at long last, Thug Bond.

It's strange now to think what a fuss people made when Daniel Craig was announced as the new Bond, so quickly has he assumed the role. If you think back a few years, to Everlasting Love or even Layer Cake, he didn't give off the air of a Bond, or at least not some clown in a suit firing laser beams out of his watch and making quips about his enemies. People still carp on now about how the Craig-era Bond isn't as fun as the old Bonds, how he lacks the humour of old, but if the last 20 months have taught us anything, it's that a lot of the old jokes were crap.

I went to see Casino Royale at a late-night show in Croydon (what could be more glamourous?), lost my ticket between the automatic machine and the cinema entrance and had to go back and buy another one. That didn't dent my enthusiasm. As the film started, you could feel a frisson of worry in the audience: were we about to sit through two hours of moody black and white? Would it all be set in a toilet somewhere, with a monstrously angry Craig drowning people in washbasins?

Now as I watch it, I spot the way the film changes from grainy in the Pakistan cricket club, to smooth in the embassy offices, but at the time I was just awed by the spectacle, and then banged awake by the opening titles, a thing of beauty and intricate detail. After those credits, all those silhouetted ladies just seem a bit crummy, like 70s soft porn. Bond feels serious again, like the early films sometimes did.

Then Craig batters his way through a building site and an embassy. One of the best jokes is the play-off between the parkour of the bomb-maker and Bond's robust physicality. An earlier Bond might have swerved and ducked around: this one just charges through walls like a raging bull. Perhaps people wanted to see him say something funny, but I was just pinned to my seat, waiting to see what excitement would come next.

It's not perfect, but no Bond ever is. At the time, the Virgin / Richard Branson product placement was criticised, but probably by people who'd never paid attention to all the previous films. There's only one car chase, and it's over much too quick, and I've never really been sure why we needed a visit to some German's plastination exhibit, unless it was the film maker worried that he needed to prove Bond was relevant again. Surely by now they should have realised those are the bits that date the quickest?

Eva Green is one of those anomalies, a Bond girl whose career appears to have survived. Perhaps "The bitch is dead" wasn't romantic enough, but it's a perfect rendition of Fleming's closing lines for the original story.

In fact, apart from being moved from France to Macedonia, having a giant plane and a piece of rope instead of a carpet beater*, Casino Royale is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the book. That didn't have to be a point in its favour: Fleming's books were often full of Blimpish, racist/sexist wankery where a spy hopped up on amphetamines and booze drives unfeasible distances and then decides what food his girlfriend will have to eat. But in Casino Royale, all the best bits of book-version Bond have been taken and put up on the screen.

A few things are missing from the classic Bond formula. There's nobody dying shortly after getting into a vehicle with Bond (a collapsing building in Venice does not count, thank you very much); there's no girl to kiss at the end, and there's no fighting involving the use of a sofa to bludgeon somebody to death. Of course, after such horrors as the wobbly table of doooom from Thunderball, perhaps that's not so bad. The constant betrayal of recent Bonds (The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day and Casino Royale) by the ladies is something else, a 'plot twist' that stopped being surprising some time around the turn of the century; you think M would have had a word with Bond by now.

There's also hardly any gadgets, save for a chip in Bond's arm and the resuscitation device, something that should be in every glovebox. Thus I felt less culture shock as I plunged into East Germany than I might otherwise have done.

The Lives Of Others was also released in 2006, but instead of looking into a glittery world of dining cars on trains, yachts and casinos, it's set in the oppressively beige world of 1985, when a single joke about Eric Honecker could see you sentenced to spend your entire career in a basement, not reading other people's mail, but steaming it open for more important people to check.

Wiesler, a Stasi interrogator, is assigned to spy on the eponymous Others: Dreyman, a playwright, and his actress girlfriend. Dreyman is loyal to the regime; it's just that a minister wants to screw the girlfriend. Spying isn't the glamour and action of a Bond film; it's sitting alone in a barren loft, listening to somebody else's life go past.

The Stasi was one of the most intensive efforts to spy on a nation: 1 in 10 of every East Germans were informers, a rate higher than any other regime; the constant dread people feel is tangible for much of the film. There are ludicrous examples of low-tech espionage techniques in this film (did you know that every typewriter in East Germany had to be registered, so that seditious writings could be traced? Did you ever expect to see a typewriter smuggled in a Black Forest gateau?) and joyless sex in a beige apartment. Bond this really is not.

There is a woman crying in a shower after a traumatic incident, though, which shows some commonality between the two films. Maybe that was fashionable in 2006. Hell, perhaps in 1964 every other film had a man tied to a table having the threat of his testicles being singed off by a laser. Who knows? I haven't been diligent enough to watch every film from each year. In trying to string connections between the two films, there's not much to go on; Weisler's grey anorak is not a patch on Bond's suits. I suppose disillusionment runs deep; Weisler and Dreyman both lose faith in the DDR as the film progresses, just as Bond begins to grow sceptical of Mathis and discover that women exist mainly to die, sometimes after betraying you.

Oh, yes. Most of the women in Casino Royale die, or have something else bad happen. There's that in common: the death is more traumatic in The Lives Of Others. Most people don't get to die in Venice, in photogenic surroundings.

What? Spoilers? You've had six years, you lazy gets.

There are different arcs to these films. Weisler starts as a brutal, emotionless man and becomes redeemed. Perhaps the film doesn't have a happy ending, but at least an uplifting coda.

Casino Royale, on the other hand, has a grim end; after dangling joy and happiness in front of Bond, it's snatched away, to reveal that it was just deceit, there's nothing but revenge and cliffhanger endings ahead of him. Oh, and having had his balls battered by Le Chiffre doesn't excuse him from being told off by M. It's a hard life for Bond.

In some way, then, the return of the Bond theme is a relief: Daniel Craig's punishment is over, at least for a while. Until people started moaning about the (perfectly good) title of Quantum Of Solace, that is.

* Not in the same scene...


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