This Already Is The First Female Bond
This started out as just a Letterboxd review but as I dug deeper it morphed into something else.
After fifteen years, five films, four US presidents, two Ms, and I guess still only one Queen, Daniel Craig finally gets to retire from James Bond and ride off into the donut hole-ing sunset. His severely delayed finale strikes a fine, satisfying balance between reprising classic Bond tropes and investigating new sides of 007, but the most novel aspect of the film is the fact that neither Bond nor his villain is the central character in the story. Save for a riveting 15 minutes in Cuba, No Time to Die is Dr. Madeleine Swann’s movie.
The movie opens with a youthful Swann jamming out to some Kidz Bop before watching her alcoholic mom succumb to lead poisoning at the hands of a really outcasted member of the jabbawockeez. The masked murderer didn’t know that Madeleine was truly gifted and talented with the beretta M9 that papa kept under the sink with the bleach. The assailant left the Norwegian cabin with several more holes than he entered it with, delivering us the prophecy that Swann told to Bond in Spectre.
We then jump to Bond and the fully grown Madeleine honeymooning, which is as dreamy and racy as one could hope for, yet it’s quickly ruined by the required shoehorning of Vesper into every movie in the Daniel Craig era. Despite this contrivance, the story’s painting of Madeleine as a mole lands in the sweet spot between convincing and possible for both the viewer and Bond. The tension here peaks as James makes the decision that is both necessary for him and also completely contrary to what we accountants and writers and telemarketers would do in the same situation, opposite Seydoux.
Five years later, Bond is leading a retired life in Jamaica that is mainly punctuated by tropical toothbrushing and towering outdoor showers, and despite his best shield of resistance, it’s clear that he would accept any faithful summons to get back into the field. Felix Leiter, a CIA-op from Craig’s first two Bond films, and Nomi (007.1) both extend Bond the invitation to do super secret spy stuff in Cuba.
In Che’s land, the viewer is introduced to the real per-minute star of the movie, a scantily-clad beauty that unleashes a range of power and performance from a deceptively petite silhouette – a Cessna Skywagon, stripped down to its shiny bare aluminum. Unfortunately, I don’t think that even this mighty airplane would be able to survive an ocean landing in the dark of night.
For those less enthused by machinery, Paloma (Ana de Armas) provides a similar level of unexpected bad-assery, shielding her advanced espionage skills under a charming feigned ignorance. With the mission complete, Bond speaks for each of us as he bids her goodbye with a well earned “you were excellent.” Berto proposes that de Armas be cast in 15 minute segments in every blockbuster film, and that is maybe the first movement I could see myself dedicating my life to.
Next, two guys on the bad team do some doublecrossing, one against the good team and one against the other bad team. We get exposition about the movie’s evil-nano-viral-bioweapon. The word “quarantine” is thrown around and lands with a much different connotation than the filmmakers intended in the writer’s room. And Swann and Bond are reunited, professionally, to tag team Blofeld (Waltz) on an interrogation.
And while, momentarily, Blofeld does revel in his presence amongst the jilted lovers, this scene packed with dramatic potential ultimately falls flat. Swann checks out early for reasons that we will discuss later on, leaving Bond and his kind of step/half brother to catch up. I got really excited right about now, because Bond needed to get some answers out of Blofeld regarding the movie’s other chief sociopath, that sociopath which killed both Bond and Blofeld’s friends via his dual-double crossers. Oh yeah and he killed Swann’s mom. We were all set up for a modern Silence of the Lambs, baby – some British facsimile of the third Nolan Batman movie that fell apart after Heath died.
But instead of Blofeld regaling us with playful clues and harrowing smirks that would benefit all parties, as well as cement him as truly the smartest anarchist in London, he baits Bond into killing him within two minutes, and I’m left to wonder why he needed to be in the movie at all.
In colder climates, we then meet the adorable Mathilde, and Swann and Bond make up for lost time by falling back in love, and we see Daddy Bond for the first time, dressing down apples, and everything in the Fleming universe is just smashingly lovely.
A couple of action-packed and visually compelling set pieces then transport us through the rest of the rising action and eventually to the movie’s climax. And in spite of my desperate cravings to see the family back together again in one final lovey dovey scene at the end of the movie, it’s hard to argue that the film’s ending is anything less than perfect, with Bond unflinchingly welcoming an onslaught of ICBMs with the same grace and poise that he shows throughout the movie in the face of errant enemy spray-fire.
Upon second viewing, I was impressed at how tightly written the movie’s finer details are:
Near the beginning of the story, after hurriedly climbing into the DB5, Madeleine off-handedly informs Bond that she has something that she needs to tell him, but a loud chase scene and Bond’s sour mood keep her secret buried.
Post chase, with her man’s mood even more sour, Madeleine demonstrably clutches her tummy after Bond banishes her to the train.
When Nomi (Lynch/007.1) picks up a hitchhiking Bond in some sporty new Aston, she echos the same accented “needa rhiide?” that she first used on James in Jamaica after sabotaging his Defender.
Mathilde steals the movie and saves her own life only by following her mother’s subtitled directions exactly – an accomplishment we all should have expected from a child with secret agent + PhD super genetics. And the eyes to prove it.
It’s no coincidence that Swann’s character bookends the movie. She grows tremendously not only through the physical narrative we see on screen, but also in how her actions and circumstances in No Time To Die contrast with how she was used in Spectre.
Despite the fact that Madeleine has killed before, or at least given it a very committed attempt, she doesn’t want to kill Blofeld. For one, because Blofeld is her psychiatric patient, but more importantly, because she refuses to be puppeted around by the world’s creepiest botanist, even though it is probably in her best interest to dance on his strings. I think it’s illuminating how this prison section was filmed. We start on a mirrored shot of Madeleine, clearly conflicted on how to proceed with Safin’s perfumed kiss of death. 007.1 then enters and makes some quippy remark before we revert back to fixating on Swann’s apprehensive face. This all occurs before Craig is ever even shown at the prison complex. Without this preface, Swann’s emotional departure from the interrogation room would be framed as much more crude and rash – representative of a character lacking control. Later on, Madeleine dusts off her childhood handgun skills and quickly handles a bad guy interloping on mommy-and-me time, so she’s not afraid of killing. She just won’t be coerced into it.
Another example of Swann’s boosted agency stems from how she is able to handle her differing kidnappings in her two Bond films. At the end of Spectre, Madeleine is the classic damsel in distress, tied up and totally reliant on Bond to save her from the crumbling MI6 building. In No Time To Die, the doctor evades her captors all on her own through some well-timed trickery, and Mathilde’s recovery takes this point even further. After 007’s firearmed attempts to recover his daughter prove futile, it is only through Swann’s verbatim, motherly instructions that Mathilde is able to free herself.
Finally, in the climactic moment of the movie (and of Swann’s life), Madeleine doesn’t cry or grovel or break down when she fully realizes that Bond is going to die. Once the missiles come into view overhead, Swann gifts James an I Love You and reassures him that his genetic material lives on before settling back into the controlled countenance of someone who can both accept the unchangeable and really make stuff happen when required.