Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Like many Bond outings before it, “No Time To Die” promised its audience something new.
Daniel Craig had already proven himself a far more multidimensional James Bond than we’d ever seen – acknowledging in his performance the obvious misery and screwed-up detachment of a man who kills for a living, drinks vodka like water and treats women as disposable bait. But in many ways, even with Craig on board, the franchise as it existed up to 2015’s “Spectre” hadn’t moved that far beyond its tired misogynist roots.
Female characters largely came, took their clothes off and went, and Craig’s Bond continued to execute death-defying stunts (as well as countless faceless henchmen) with little concern for life or limb – including his own.
So for all the years-long hype around Lashana Lynch’s portrayal of the new 007 (replacing a retired Bond), Léa Seydoux’s return as Madeleine Swann, and Daniel Craig’s determination to acknowledge how very old and beaten-up he has become in the process of being Bond, there was no guarantee that much actual cultural progress would be made this time around.
But for once, amid the absurd and seemingly endless plot in “No Time to Die,” there was progress indeed.
One welcome shift was a move away from the tired, colonial “for Queen and Country” framing of previous installments, which endured throughout Craig’s tenure up until now. Though it’s not strictly part of the canon, Craig’s skit with Queen Elizabeth during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics further cemented the on-screen association of Bond with national fealty which started with the pug-like bust of Winston Churchill in M’s office in the opening scenes of 1962’s “Dr. No.” In 2012’s “Skyfall,” one of the “tests” Bond must pass to prove he’s fit to work involves a word association game. To the prompt “country,” he answers immediately “England.” (His answer to “woman”: “provocatrix”).
But in the opening credits of “No Time To Die,” a ragged old statue of Britannia is shown falling through the sands of time, buried and obsolete a-la the Statue of Liberty in the final minutes of 1969’s “Planet Of The Apes.” Rather than an image of Churchill or the monarch on display at MI6, we see a painting of Judi Dench’s M – a totem of the most significant cultural evolution Bond had seen on-screen prior to Craig’s entry. Though the Royal Navy shows up to help out at the end of “No Time To Die,” the film wraps with a definite sense of unease as to where the franchise should next aim its guns.
No longer a “relic of the Cold War” – as Dench’s M characterized Pierce Brosnan’s Bond in 1995’s “GoldenEye” – Craig’s Bond inhabited his own Marvel-cum-DC-like universe of villains. There’s banker/terrorist Le Chiffre (“Casino Royale”), sadistic ex-agent Raoul Silva (“Skyfall”), surveillance obsessive Max Denbigh (“Spectre”), and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Bond’s foster brother and the leader of Spectre, the modern, all-purpose, evil organization all of the above reveal their allegiance to. Craig’s Bond looked inward, embracing a Batman (or Iron Man)-like orphan’s origin story in “Skyfall” with the help of his childhood gamekeeper Kincade, essentially Albert the butler in more rough-and-ready attire, defending Skyfall (Bond’s own Wayne Manor). He was self-referential from the moment he emerged from the sea in “Casino Royale,” his pale swimming trucks dripping like Ursula Andress’ Honey Ryder in “Dr. No.”
When “Casino Royale” premiered in 2006, the image of Daniel Craig’s glistening abs and Hulk-like shoulders was hailed as an early promise of change to come – a sexier, more rugged Bond than Brosnan’s glossy incarnation. But for all that, the revamp still came with a heavy dose of male gaze, and many of the same sexist tropes. An under-reported element of the infamous beach scene is that of initial love interest Solange Dimitrios (played by Caterina Murino) cantering across the beach on horseback, all flowing hair and barely-there bikini. It’s not long, of course, before Bond seduces her, and she dies as collateral damage on his mission to thwart Le Chiffre.
In contrast, the evolution from love interest to love story is by far the most emotive element of “No Time To Die.” Whereas Bond films traditionally hit refresh on the merry-go-round of featured “girls” at the beginning of each installment, “No Time To Die” sees Madeleine Swann – portrayed with typical depth and beauty by Léa Seydoux – make a historic return. For the audience, she adds a critical layer of emotional investment.
We see Swann as a child in flashbacks, see the story unfold from her point of view, and early doors are at least as invested in her fate as Bond’s. While “Casino Royale“‘s Vesper Lynd was merely worthy of being loved by Bond, Swann has a whole life of her own. This only adds to the urgency of their reunion – so much more satisfying than the passing seductions which have dominated the franchise so far.
While “No Time To Die” isn’t without opportunities to ogle its cast – Ana de Armas’ dark blue dress is fast racking up a fan base all of its own – it’s careful to pair them with a slap of humility on each occasion. The only character to get their kit off is Bond, and de Armas’ character – trainee agent Paloma – defies expectations within minutes of appearing on-screen, showing up an aging Bond with her beautifully choreographed, charismatic turn shooting the room to pieces.
Much is made of Bond’s age for the film’s entire 2 hours and 43 minutes – a fact typically ignored in previous incarnations. While 1985’s “A View To A Kill” opens with a 57-year-old Roger Moore snowboarding down a mountain to a bouncy Beach Boys soundtrack, “No Time To Die” sees a creaky Bond struggle to keep pace with his younger, fitter colleagues. The reticence of an older White man to relinquish his 007 designation to a well-qualified young Black woman – an agent called Nomi, played by Lashana Lynch – feels familiar.
Though vastly more socially awake than its predecessors, “No Time To Die” isn’t without room to improve. Rami Malek’s terrorist villain Lyutsifer Safin, though appropriately nation-less, has a poison-inflicted facial deformity. His scars imply an unnecessary association – similar to Silva’s ghoulish reveal in “Skyfall” – between conventional beauty as good, and “ugly” as bad.
It is by far the clunkiest character note in a film whose main mission appears to be to act as a hard stop between what came before it, and whatever is to follow. And about the only thing “No Time To Die” doesn’t tell us about its intentions is what on earth it envisages coming next. At the very least, one hopes that the breadth and depth of female characters, finally on par with the male cast, is here to stay.