In No Time to Die, James Bond is “retired” and so a new agent has taken his 007 title. “The world’s moved on, Commander Bond,” purrs Lashana Lynch’s Nomi. She – yes, she – is a young Black woman. Lynch’s casting as a member of M16 is just one of No Time to Die’s interventions, designed to refresh the franchise for a contemporary audience.
It’s a little tedious to be asked “How was the sexism?” instead of “How was the film?” Yet it’s perhaps a valid question, given the film’s two-year publicity campaign, which has been as focused on the movie’s modcons (the addition of Lynch, and Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge as co-writer) as it has on Daniel Craig’s departure. Actually, the same is not true of the film, which is a swooning retro romance, and lavish farewell party for Craig. It has been designed as a crowd-pleaser, with more jokes and sillier gadgets and less nastiness than viewers have become accustomed to in the Craig era. Waller-Bridge, drafted in for a script polish and, likely, her feminist credentials, has lightened the mood with her signature deadpan one-liners. In a mischievous ploy to redress the balance of the series’ distinctly male gaze, there are now chances for audience members to ogle Bond in various states of undress (the women remain mostly clothed). It’s the equal opportunities Bond, and Craig seems more than game.
In the 15 years since Craig’s Bond arrived and, later, waded out of the ocean, the world has changed. Craig himself admitted it in an interview in 2015. “Hopefully, my Bond is not as sexist and misogynistic. I am certainly not that person. But he is,” he told Esquire magazine. Even director Cary Joji Fukanaga has acknowledged that the creepy come-ons of previous Bonds are no longer welcome. “Is it Thunderball or Goldfinger where basically Sean Connery’s character rapes a woman? That wouldn’t fly today” he told the Hollywood Reporter.
In No Time to Die, the perpetual playboy has traded his bed-hopping habit for respectable monogamy. Léa Seydoux’s psychiatrist Madeline Swann, who first appeared in 2015’s Spectre, is the first of Bond’s love interests to return – if anything, a conservative tweak. I suppose it’s noteworthy that unlike most of his previous conquests, Madeline is not so disposable. This damsel in distress is handy with a gun, but more importantly, she drives the plot and raises its stakes. She is, at least, permitted to wear a pair of jeans, their practicality cancelled out by the fact that they’re white, and the fact that she wears them with stilettos. I get it – to strip a Bond girl of all her glamour would be too much of a heel turn. Bond is, after all, still a fantasy.
It’s interesting then to see which elements of the fantasy the new film has dispensed with. One example is the women who can’t help but fall at Bond’s feet. Amusingly, the Daily Mail reported Bond’s “friendly rapport with his female colleagues” as though it were news. Any on-duty flirtation is briskly nipped in the bud. Ana De Armas’ scene-stealing trainee agent Paloma shoves Bond into a wine cellar before unbuttoning his shirt – then hands him his tuxedo and turns around. She’s dressed like a Bond girl, in a plunging, backless silk gown, but with her goofy sense of humour and athletic gunslinging, she sure doesn’t act like one. “You were excellent,” declares Bond, a line played straight instead of as seduction. Elsewhere, Nomi lures Bond back to his bedroom for a private meeting, making it clear she means business. Literally.
Lynch is a zesty addition, bringing charisma and wit to an underwritten role. Nomi feels like a symbolic achievement, not a character. We are shown and told of her competence and the respect she commands, but we learn nothing about her inner life or backstory. Understandably, the film wants to celebrate the fact that a Black woman has infiltrated and risen the ranks of such an institution, yet is uncomfortable drawing attention to her race. Indeed, the only attempt to acknowledge Nomi’s ethnicity is a glib, tacked-on moment that sees her cathartically deal with a racist remark.
The film’s painstaking efforts to whittle itself into a more progressive shape are hardly the measure of its success. That, I think, is down to Craig, who has managed to put his own spin on Bond’s macho swagger. Throughout his tenure, the actor has dug into Bond’s inner turmoil, in turn revealing his humanity. In No Time to Die especially, Craig cracks himself open, exposing a vulnerable beating heart beneath the aloof, weatherbeaten exterior.
Lynch is more of the old-school Bond mould; a smooth, charming and inscrutable cipher. Still, the film itself is tentative in genuinely considering her as Bond’s successor. It’s emphasised that although she might be the new 007, the title is just a number. There’ll only ever be one James Bond.