Review: 'Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond' has spy fun, not charm
Bond fans will probably want to tune in to all four parts of "Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond" (Wed. Jan. 29 at 10:00 p.m. ET on BBC America) in order to play a game of "Hey, he really did that! Maybe!"
Watch the author of all things Bond order his drink shaken, not stirred! Watch him play a high stakes game of baccarat right out of "Casino Royale" (the book, not the movie)! Watch him screw around with anything in a skirt! Watch him dream up the high-tech gizmos Q would have loved! The list goes exhaustively on and on, often with Fleming's results speaking less of movie sizzle and more of mundane reality (for example, his spy-riffic gadgets are quickly dismissed as "toys").
Of course, it would all be a lot more fun if Fleming was, like the character he created, suave and debonaire. Instead, it seems Fleming was a grade-A wanker. While we're told repeatedly that Fleming (Dominic Cooper) is the most handsome man in the room, that's hardly indisputable, and Cooper comes across as pompous and sneering instead of witty and mischievous. But even if Cooper had nailed the character, it wouldn't matter much. On the page, it's impossible to understand why Fleming was catnip for the ladies, unless the ones he bedded suffered from criminally low self-esteem.
While Fleming used and abused women like Bond, it was never for Mother England and the greater good but simply because, hey, he could do it. His relationship with Lady Ann (Lara Pulver) is dysfunctional at best, and borders on felonious assault in one overwrought scene (don't worry; as befits a Bond story, she really liked it). While Fleming is ultimately tamed by Lady Ann, it's hard to root for either side of this couple. While it's easy to accept they are perfect for one another, it's only because they're both so thoroughly dislikable.
What far outshines the cheesy sex scenes of "Fleming" is the wartime drama, though Fleming proves himself a cretin here, too. Though he's bubbling over with good ideas and occasionally does the right thing (usually using other people's money), when it really counts he has no problem letting a good man die a brutal death. Okay, maybe he feels a little guilty in the moment, but mostly he's just excited that he has such a good story to tell afterward.
Given that Fleming is presented as someone with a tenuous attachment to the truth, perhaps it's fitting that the biopic itself issues a disclaimer at the beginning of each segment warning us that some particulars are pure fiction. While I hope that this means Fleming didn't leave the trail of scorched earth behind him that we see, I have a sinking feeling that's the case.
"Fleming" seems to want to have it both ways -- a warts-and-all portrayal of a famous writer paired with heart-stopping adventure and intrigue. The problem, of course, is without Bond at the center of the excitement, we don't care much about what happens to Fleming (in an odd narrative choice, the story begins with one of the few mysteries answered -- we see him on his honeymoon with Lady Ann -- thus blowing an opportunity to build tension in their storyline).
We know Fleming survives the war, but we really don't care. If nothing else, warring factions supporting all the different Bonds will probably be able to agree on this -- the "real" thing, which this likely isn't, doesn't measure up to any Bond that ever was -- or will be.
Watch this sneak peek from "The Man Who Would Be Bond":