The typical image of Fleming, based on surviving photographs, is of an aloof individual, dressed in a dark suit and bow-tie, cradling a cigarette in one hand. He, like Commander Bond, was for a time in British naval intelligence. He, like Commander Bond, savored vodka martinis and was well traveled. But where, though, do we draw the line between the man and his fictional creation? Sainte-Beuve declared: “I do not look on literature as a thing apart, or at least, detachable, from the rest of the man. . . .” In other words, literary works are essentially commentaries on the lives of their writers. To grasp the work is to understand the writer’s biography, to associate the creator with his work in every way possible. What motivated his actions, what was his daily lifestyle? Yet, as Kundera points out, Sainte-Beuve “managed not to recognize any of the great writers of his time—not Balzac, nor Stendhal, nor Baudelaire; by studying their lives he inevitably missed their work, because [and here Kundera quotes Proust] ‘a book is the product of a self other than the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices’ ” (267) . Put another way, Sainte-Beuve’s method leads to a misunderstanding of the author and his works. In Fleming’s case, the tendency to associate him closely with Bond has turned the man into something of an enigma, reinforced by the popularity of the Bond films, which has overshadowed him, and his own obscurity to most of the public—aspects that have made everyone forget the man, settling into a collective belief that Fleming himself was very much the dashing hero in his fiction. After all, he created Bond, so he must have been the real Bond. And so with his old photographs, it’s easy for the imagination to conjure a striking sylph at his side and cigarette smoke drifting over a baccarat table. Circa 1930s, perhaps. An elegant casino somewhere in Europe. It’s been a lasting bit of imagery, although somewhat tired, especially with today’s mass market casinos within easy reach, eclipsing the luxury and mystique portrayed in such romantic imagery. Yet this imagery is enough of a starting point for the filmmakers of Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond to pad out a four-part miniseries for BBC America, all for the sake of asserting that Fleming lived the 007 lifestyle.
There have been two other biopics on Fleming: a bland 1989 rendition, titled Goldeneye, with Charles Dance in the role; and Spymaker: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming, a 1990 vehicle for Jason Connery (yes, that Connery, son of the iconic Scotsman) as the young Ian Fleming. This latest, starring Dominic Cooper, is supposedly inspired by the Pearson biography, first published in 1970, but it seems closer in spirit to Andrew Lycett’s 1995 tome, which delves deeply into Fleming’s antics as a louche, as well as his debauched married life with Lady Ann O’Neill (quite the marital bliss, with enough tears and plate-throwing and adultery tossed into the mix). With such a backdrop, this is the biopic that paints the Fleming-as-a-sadomasochist caricature: director Mat Whitecross resorts to a light sketch of the young Fleming but plays up the drawn-out romancing of Lady Ann, complete with abuse and “rough” sex. One gets the feeling that Whitecross is well aware of the stigma attached to Fleming, which stems from the writer’s bizarre fascination with erotica and flagellation and the disturbing but well publicized letters, revealing he was fond of whipping his complaisant future wife, one of which spells out “I must do my duty however much pain it causes me. So be prepared to drink your cocktails standing for a few days” (Lycett). To which I do a bit of Roger Moore eyebrow-cocking, wondering if this is serious shit or just Fleming and his bride-to-be in twisted banter, albeit suggesting some deep psychological baggage? Why the letters were even published in the first place raise a different problem: I suspect Fleming would have wanted these letters burned, certainly not have them lying about out for the eyes of others.1 Nevertheless, leave it to the late Christopher Hitchens to express nothing but kind admiration for this aspect of the man: “If Fleming had not been quite a heavy sadist and narcissist and all-around repressed pervert, we might never have got to know Rosa Klebb or Auric Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld” (“Bottoms Up”).
And with such a stigma attached to Fleming, we certainly would never have gotten the character depicted in this version. From the outset, the series face the same problem that hindered the previous biopics: we can be virtually certain that most audiences are unfamiliar with Fleming, the man, let alone the dozen or so Bond books he wrote; and for a filmmaker, the challenge is how to make the Fleming lore dramatic enough for a movie. Why even put the man’s life on screen in the first place? Was his life fascinating enough to be dramatized? In the collective belief about the man, such questions don’t seem to matter: only the impulse to associate his life with Bond-like escapades becomes the standard approach. Consequently, this rendition takes pains to link Fleming’s life with the style of the Bond film series. Hence, the John Barry-esque score, the lush underwater cinematography near Goldeneye (as if everyday for Fleming was a scene from Thunderball), the fabricated excursions into spy missions, Fleming testing spy gadgets, and, above all, the miscast Cooper bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the author, but his dark features hint at a desperate attempt to evoke the “dark Englishman who played so quietly” at the baccarat table (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service 25) and, of course, the Connery type of Bond, the emblem of the screen version. Ironically, apart from the characterization of the dark romantic hero, many of these cinematic elements all came about long after Fleming wrote the books, starting with the first film, Dr. No, and finalized into a template in 1964’s Goldfinger. Moreover, the disclaimer at the end of each episode (“Some names, places and incidents are fictitious and have been changed for dramatic effect”) only makes Fleming’s portrait dubious. Whitecross is left with a shadow figure, raising trivia-like parallels for fans of the books and films to recognize. This Ian Fleming is too obscure, caught between the film’s self-consciousness to foreshadow Bondian elements and the flimsy characterization of a cad with sadomasochistic tendencies.
Overwritten by John Brownlow and Don MacPherson, the series focuses on Fleming’s years working for the director of British naval intelligence during the war, many years before he wrote the 007 tales, a post that introduced him to espionage. The timeline spans from 1938 to 1952, with the first episode beginning at the end, where Fleming—in his Jamaican retreat, Goldeneye—is completing the manuscript for Casino Royale. Right away, we’re given the signal that Fleming is really Bond: Lady Ann, now his wife, looks on, questioning the book’s protagonist. “He’s not me,” Fleming insists in a sort of self-deprecation, puffing on a cigarette with artfully shot curls of smoke. “You as you’d like to be,” she teases in return. From here on, the script tends to exaggerate Fleming’s intelligence work and its connection with the eventual Bond fiction. All the way to the end, for example, we find a cloak-and-dagger subplot consisting of gunfire and an elaborate escape from German soldiers, which suggests that this is an aspect of the script where the imagination has been stretched. Lieutenant Monday, the admiral’s assistant, wonders if Fleming’s report to the admiral (supposedly, the inspiration for M) is true, but he admits, “I may have enhanced one or two of the details.” The Lieutenant herself is an obvious allusion to Miss Moneypenny, but one gets the impression the character is an amalgam of the many bureaucratic administrators Fleming encountered in the service.
The story, along with the characters, are unfocused, struggling to find a solid sense for the time period. Sometimes, it seems we’re seeing a Jazz Age/F. Scott Fitzgerald story of social decadence; sometimes, we’re peering into a 1930’s noir-like romance. Moments of soap-opera drama alternate with risqué sex scenes, usually between Fleming and Lady Ann, that come across as unintentionally laughable. In one scene, a lavish gala is interrupted by German aerial bombs but the two are grappling in a hallway as explosions shatter walls and chandeliers. Apparently, their passion is so intense, and director Whitecross underscores it with the chaos of war to emphasize that what they have is bigger than death. It’s the kind of filmmaking that thrusts any movie so deep into kitsch. Still, their dalliance must end, for when the last bomb explodes and the dust has settled, the rescue workers will be combing the debris. It’s not wise to greet the medics and one Esmond Harmsworth (the hapless bloke who accompanied her) in a shattered hallway while locked in coitus with a pompous first-rate asshole. Yes, sad to say, Cooper’s Fleming is reduced to such a characterization. The brevity of the biographical tidbits results in the young Fleming as a scoundrel and an out-of-control womanizer, condescending to everyone he encounters, brutally mistreating women and bitterly fornicating with them, although he must be congratulated for having time to be the black sheep in an aristocratic family in which his elder brother (the intellectual Peter Fleming) is already a successful author and his authoritative mother denounces his antics. Oddly, the script has Fleming discover that Ann has a penchant for sadomasochism just as he’s recovering from what is depicted, rather fleetingly, as a tragic personal loss (the death of his first love, Muriel Wright, a dispatcher killed during an aerial assault). The effect is droll, not compelling characterization.
The bulk of the series centers on Fleming’s pursuit of Ann, who’s husband is a military officer, conveniently away in battle, but she expresses her gratitude for his service by being Harmsworth’s mistress (he, of course, is the eventual 2nd Viscount Rothermere). Not surprisingly, it all leads to complications in her prolonged mating ritual with Fleming, and their interaction is quite the yawn, with each encounter predictably resisted until she surrenders in the Pussy Galore spirit of “No, no, you wouldn’t dare – Yes!” The impression we’re left with is that Fleming and Ann, along with their snobby crowd, are despicable people—well, all right, maybe not as despicable as, say, Wagner and Cosima Liszt, but despicable nonetheless. For his part, Cooper lacks the commanding presence to carry a four-part mini-series. Clad in a naval attire, he is reminiscent of a high school kid stuffed in a suit. He’s the type of guy who drives a pizza delivery car. He’s the night stock boy at Walmart. Through it all, Cooper gives it the college try but, in the end, he comes across as obnoxious and annoying without showing the psychological torment fueling his antics. Yet even if Cooper had understood the character, the effect would have been negligible: with the script’s lack of focus, it's impossible to convey why this Ian Fleming was quite the prize for the ladies, unless those he bedded thought so little of themselves.
The mini-series was filmed in the United Kingdom and Budapest in early 2013. Before the cameras rolled, executive producer Douglas Rae proclaimed in a press release that “Ian Fleming’s story is as dramatic and entertaining as any of the Bond films. I’m thrilled that we are able to tell this extraordinary story on BBC AMERICA” (“BBC America to co-produce Fleming”). Despite the lavish production, what’s presented is a mini-series that struggles to show it all—a portrait of Fleming with all his faults, coupled with espionage missions and allusions to Bondian elements. Unfortunately, without 007 moving the story along, we don't care much about Fleming. It seems this is another example of how the Sainte-Beuve method doesn’t quite work, as Proust had asserted. Sure, in Fleming’s case, he harked back to some personal experiences for his Bond stories. But to approach the man and his fiction by identifying him strictly as Bond is not necessary. Instead, another Fleming lurks nearby, the voice in those pages that deserves a bit more scrutiny: the one who senses the approach of death on a tired secret agent and recounts how this individual still finds it worthwhile to live in a world coiled in disorder. If our goal is to grasp Fleming’s fiction, then we need to confront that voice—and the ailing hero—in those pages.
|1||In a sense, it reminds me of how Max Brod published Kafka’s letters, ignoring the wishes of the author. I cringe at the thought; for when it’s acceptable to expose another person’s private life, we’ve entered a time when the individual is easily obliterated.|