A Woman Watches Bond: GoldenEye
Bond is back — in a rousing reboot. Pierce Brosnan’s first Bond outing in a brave new world, plus Sean Bean and tanks. On top of all this, there’s also Robbie Coltrane, karaoke and…tanks! What is not to love? Yes, this is the image I have when I think of GoldenEye —
Who can you trust? Who is really friend or foe? Are things as they seem when the Cold War is thawing and Bond’s world (and relevance in it) is in a flux? (Though his Danish is on the up).
M is a woman (in the mode of Stella Rimington) and Judi Dench magnificently has no time for sexist misogynist dinosaurs nor relics of the Cold War, although she is prepared to utilise them to get the job done as a serious political mover-shaker-negotiator. Moneypenny is now Samantha Bond — an age appropriate sparring partner for Bond, who herself seems to have no time for Bond and has out her own out of work relationship. She’s more in the role of Bond’s handler! Times are a changin’ — in the titles we’ve seen sisters doing it for themselves, literally smashing the patriarchy and bringing down all the statues of the redundant Cold War regime. And now will a woman bring down Bond? (Intriguingly in many of the Brosnan films, like Connery’s, the women are the villains too!)
This Bond starts with an impressive mission — Bond is cornered behind some squeaky gas canisters (after that magnificent, record breaking bungee jump, diving down into the Contra Dam aka Arkhangelsk). Captured Sean Bean as Alec Trevelyan patriotically sacrifices himself for Queen and country, allowing Bond time to regroup and escape, for England’s sake. Showing the complexity of post-Cold War relations, a team of British spies have infiltrated a Soviet chemical weapons base. Nonetheless there is respect and admiration from the overseeing officer Colonel Arkady Grigorovich Ourumov, (the excellent John Gottfried), even as he dispatches his enemies or watches them explode things and run away (because this is no time to die!)
We’re back in Roger Moore fun Bond territory and in amongst all the bombast, explosions and puns, Pierce Brosnan has created a charming, suave, very confident character; though at times, wounded and emotional Bond. This movie also starts a theme of Bond romancing his medical personnel — a thread broken by Craig’s Bond!
Somewhere in Russia, programmer Natalya Simonova fights workplace sexism (much like M and Moneypenny) and her own sexist misogynist dinosaurs — Alan Cumming (Boris). She’s in a military Russian Space station guarding Russian guided missiles (and potentially laser wielding satellites or as it turns out, even electro pulsing nuclear weapons). Only evil duplicitous Russians have other plans for this facility — destroying it, the people in it and seizing a weapon for potential world domination. Under the cover of a miliary inspection (boo hiss!) Nevertheless, being a Bond woman with guile and a brain as well as need for coffee at an opportune moment, Natalya manages to hide, escaping this horrific slaughter, stumbling out into the snow and burning debris, traumatised by the destruction of her workplace and her colleagues.
Izabella Scorupco is superb as Natalya Simonova — a smart, resourceful woman who can hack her way out of problems, and yet is nuanced and vulnerable as an ordinary civilian caught up in issues beyond her everyday experience. We see this in the way she isn’t used to running and jumping away from exploding things. The tender grief she brings to finding a female colleague murdered is very moving — as is her plan to investigate why this whole thing happened — using Internet cafes, her own capable intelligence ….and Boris.
Bond meanwhile goes back behind the former Iron Curtain to seek information from a Russian gangster (Robbie Coltrane!) aka Valentin Zukovsky. This involves a great visual where Bond sneaks through a collection of formerly heroic fallen Soviet and Revolutionary statues at night — a relic of the Cold War amongst other relics. A glimpse into Bond’s vulnerabilities and sub-conscious here? In one of my favourite moments we encounter Minnie Driver as Zukovsky’s girlfriend, who can’t sing — but is desperate to be a star. Her massacre of Stand By Your Man is quite something (not to mention her backing group)! Bond needs to meet Janus who’s behind all the weapons stealing duplicity — which leads to a casino moment.
And another encounter with Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen). A fellow risk taker and thrill seeker, she’s already encountered Bond in a heart pumping Ferrari vs Aston D5 race along a snaky road, with a horrible synth soundtrack. Given the modernity and patriarchy smashing bravado of this film, her character is a strange throwback — a woman without a proper name, more of a suggestion, and weird villain quirks — seriously getting off on violence and crushing her enemies to death between her thighs. Watch out Bond! Given that her character is essentially scripted pouting and moaning (and heartlessly dispatching civilians and stealing military grade things — like helicopters from airshows and weapons from bases), Famke Janssen conjures up miracles. She gives us a cunning fighter pilot; a powerful and power-driven woman rather than a cypher and walking cliche, who uses her beauty and brains to get what she wants. For her the world is truly not enough? She’s also Georgian — almost another Stalin or perhaps a breakaway separatist, an enemy of Glasnost? Utterly ruthless, even her corrupt associate Ourumov would do anything for power (but he won’t do that). In a nice, subtle touch, John Gottfried’s General gives us a side eye of horror as Janssen’s character visibly gets off on shooting groaning survivors. We feel his worry — and indeed panic at who he’s allied with (and spiralling thoughts about whether he can get out of the partnership asap?!!)…Here is living proof that, for some, the Cold War hasn’t ended.
Natalya in full detective mode, tracks down Boris in a beautiful candle-lit cathedral in St Petersburg, determined to bring justice and truth. But Boris is on the wrong side — as this also leads her to meet Onotopp again and ultimately Alex Trevelyan. In a very funny moment, Bond comes to in the stolen helicopter, listening to Natalya screaming at him to wake up. He’s in the driving seat! she’s literally a back seat passenger. Escaping, they are interrogated by the Russian Minister of Defence Mishkin, who in adjudicating is unfortunately another victim of Janus. Here Ourumov reveals his true colours, shooting the Russian Defence Minister Onotopp style (in cold blood) and kidnapping Natalya in his get away vehicle. All the same, this leads to another great action sequence as Bond commandeers a tank and careers through St Petersburg in trundling hot pursuit — destroying heritage along the way and epically rescuing Natalya from an exploding Russian missile train (and slimy Alec and Onatopp). I love how Bond keeps crashing the tank through and over things, creating his own routes and purposefully proceeding alongside the ornamental canal. Best of all, he smoothly straightens his tie at one moment, as he’s just survived a cloud of dust and historic debris. Dinosaurs can adapt?
In a creepy sequence we learn that Sean Bean lives (in a battered villain form). He unnecessarily menaces Natalya sexually — for some reason he wants what Bond has, although she and Bond are most definitely not together at this time. Natalya has none of it, but it is a blip in the film. He’s already holding her prisoner — surely this is enough peril? But it’s used to show us that Sean Bean’s character is evil.
Bizarrely having given a really nuanced performance as an ordinary woman unused to running and jumping from shooting and explosions, a civilian in extraordinary situations, Natalya and Bond instantly get together after their escape and rock up in Cuba, on the hunt for a hidden big satellite dish and a nice scenic holiday. Having started off as an easily distracted smug and sexist pig, we see a more emotionally mature Bond who wants a relationship, and is prepared to share his vulnerabilities; someone who mourns the loss of his friend. Faithful Bond! It’s not that I don’t buy them as a couple — just that they go straight from leaping from explosions to relationship without a breath. The timeline jolts. Perhaps this is Freudian sex and death kicking in, who knows? Compare this with the development of Vesper and Bond in Casino Royale, or Tracey and Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
As well as the Americans buzzing round in equally fast cars (and Natalya still being her own woman in firmly correcting Bond’s pronunciation of her name), the big satellite dish is conveniently hidden in a lake basin! We also see a Bond woman who can both read a map and navigate a plane! Having shot them down, Onatopp fights Bond with relish and dies horribly, giving Bond opportunity for a Moore-like pun. Yet Sean Bean still lives and hates the British, specifically the English! Therefore they need to explode the base, and stop him, and the weapon, from bringing down any more planes and causing carnage to London. Bond is caught, Boris has the Q gadget (an exploding pen) and Natalya out-hacks Boris, ignoring all the men who told her to stay put and not get involved! Natalya, not Bond, saves the world — though perhaps for Top Trump marks, Bond finally puts an end to traitor Sean Bean in a fight over the satellite cradle and antenna. (And the pen helps too!) The pursuit of Alec in the shadows and the jamming of the gears is tense and thrilling; thought provokingly, Natalya again rescues a dangling Bond by piloting him out of there, just in time. Alec and Boris are squashed and exploded to just smithereens whilst Bond and Natalya are interrupted, Moore like, by an American rescue party.
Whilst I have qualms about the female villain, (and the waste of a tremendous actress like Famke Janssen), this is potentially a better film for Bond women. And they are women here, not girls. There are interesting, impactful and varied female leads all over the place — M, Moneypenny, Natalya, Onatopp. Overall, it’s a woman (with Bond’s help) who saves the world… and Western civilisation as we know it, long before Nomi was even thought of. Plus all those post-Cold War relations! Intriguingly this is the first Bond movie helmed by the Broccoli siblings and I’m so curious to follow through Barbara Broccoli’s involvement and impact on Bond movies. What does a woman producer bring to Bond movies — does it make a difference, does it matter? In fairness, whilst it is just a Bond movie and all to be taken with a liberal pinch of salt, it does connect into the culture of its time. Famke Janssen’s Xenia could be seen as the blueprint for later, smarter Bond villains such as Elektra King.
But in this film, more than anything, it’s the action sequences (rather than the locations, music or cars) which are the beating heart of it all. The stunts and set pieces are excellent, well designed and incredible; and those tanks. There’s an awful lot of humour and fun (through Boris, Robbie Coltrane’s old Bond opponent and Bond puns), and yet many emotional moments to make us pause… and catch our breath.