30th September 2021
Ben Williams reviews No Time To Die (no spoilers)
By Ben Williams
Finally, it’s time.
We have ridden a roller coaster of setbacks, delays, rescheduling, and more delays, each one tantalising and teasing our expectations, with the weight of industry survival and literal human lives hanging in the balance. Faith and friendships have been tested and torn asunder until finally, blessedly, an announcement stuck and the date appeared to approach faster than a speeding 7.65mm slug.
After so long readjusting their sights, would this Bondian bullet be a surefire hit, or would it miss the target? Well, without a single spoiler in the ‘scope, here is the ballistics report.
With so many levels of fandom ranging from the Fleming aficionados to the sticklers for sartorial screen accuracy, it’s difficult to say anything that isn’t a spoiler. Is the gunbarrel where it’s supposed to be? Is there more of the Bond theme than we’ve heard in the (already leaked) score? Well, this review isn’t here to answer those questions, suffice to say that they are present, but as for correct, you will need to judge for yourselves.
What I can tell you is that this is perhaps the greatest departure in terms of formula than we’ve seen in a Bond film since 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'. Conventions have been forged then broken before and since, it’s true, but in 'No Time To Die' these conventions are bent so utterly as to form a sort of Einstein-Rosen Bridge in spacetime, a transversable conduit that allows objects from the past to travel and exist freely in multiple timelines simultaneously and without incongruity. In other words, be prepared for a film in which anything can happen and where even the most fundamentally held truisms of the franchise are fair game.
That’s not to say that we don’t get all the usual bells and whistles one expects from the series; If you came for the usual staples of the Bond films you will not be disappointed - there are fantastic fights and careening car chases and the stakes have never been higher in Craig’s tenure. But while these staples are all there, there is also a lot more going on in this film, which at points departs so drastically from the formula that you might be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into the wrong screening.
On the surface, we have what one might consider simply a very polished Bond movie. It is exquisitely shot and the direction is like a coiling snake, moving slowly, mesmerisingly, until it strikes with speed and ferocity. This combination alone would elevate it into the ranks of amongst the best in the franchise, but throw in a cast that really are some of the finest actors in the world, give them dialogue that is by turns witty and playful, powerful and poetic, put them in some of the most impressive pieces of production design since Ken Adam handed in his homework to Stanley Kubrick, and 'No Time To Die' confidently strides up the rankings. Throw in sound design that puts you viscerally into the action, costuming that reveals and enhances character, and a score that brings back the best of Barry and nods to Arnold, and you have a film that whispers into the ear of the top spot.
The tone here is also a big departure. We are firmly in a grown-up film - the whimsy of Roger is but a distant, although fond, memory. From the get-go, it barely pulls a punch, and then if only to retain that coveted 12A rating. The best comparison I can make is 'The Empire Strikes Back'. A film which dared to be different, to experiment, to be not only the darkest in that saga, but also take the lead character and have him share the screen only with a muppet, an automated dustbin, and a ghost for over seventy percent of the runtime. But when Empire took those risks, deliberately steering away from being simply a remake of the previous film, it became elevated to the status of being arguably the best in the saga. So it is with 'No Time To Die'. Here these risks have paid back handsomely on the Bond roulette table by putting it all on Black 22. However, like 'The Empire Strikes Back', 'No Time To Die' isn’t a film that really exists in isolation. You have to know the characters and care about them. It assumes a great deal of knowledge and it isn’t going to waste any time trying to explain to you in what it clearly considers needless exposition - “Do keep up, 007!”
This is why it is difficult to place the film right at the top spot as I like a film that can stand alone without the need or support of others. But in spite of it requiring this familiarity, it performs a very neat trick that 'SPECTRE' before it tried but failed to achieve; it retroactively makes all the other Craig films before it seem to properly connect and somehow just makes them better. This is the bookend to his tenure that Craig wanted to have with 'SPECTRE' but had to wait six long years to achieve and thankfully it does so with solidity.
All that said, I am known for my hyperbole when it comes to these reviews and I promised myself, and everyone who might potentially read this, an honest and dispassionate review. One that wasn’t affected by my bias as a fan and my buoyed emotions. So, with that in mind, I should say that this isn’t a perfect film. Some of the plot elements, on reflection, don’t dovetail together as neatly as they’re supposed to. Some threads are pulled that never go anywhere. Characters make choices that seem at odds with their mission or motivation, occasionally to the point where you genuinely wonder why they’re doing what they are doing at all, while at other times you’re not sure what they’re saying anyway thanks to impenetrable accents and/or expressionless faces.
There is some of that 'You Only Live Twice' fever dream logic happening here, but one simply has to roll with it if one is to enjoy the film to the fullest extent. To quibble over such things is to knock over the delicate and intricate house of cards that has been constructed since 'Casino Royale'. And speaking of 'You Only Live Twice', fans of the novel will feel this film resonating with the events of those pages.
A quibble that I do have, which is by no means anyone’s fault, is that I find it hard to really buy into the depth of the relationship between Bond and Madeleine. Seydoux is a better actor than she is given credit for and there are scenes where you see her raw emotion right there on the screen. Similarly, Craig can bring a level of commitment to a scene and enhance it in a way that perhaps even the writer didn’t imagine. In short, both are actors who are bringing their A-game. Unfortunately, despite the emotion, despite the beautifully written words, it’s hard to believe them as a couple who are so deeply in love with one another. This is a shame, because, in the end, it is this relationship, this love, that is the emotional backbone of the film that deals with themes of love, loyalty, family, and time. In fact, time, and how we use it, is a huge part of the film.
With the rest of what is essentially an ensemble cast, you have everyone doing what they do with the ease of pulling on a worn, soft leather Church's boot. Ben Wishaw has been busy in the intervening years joining the ranks of the acting elite as a bona fide National Treasure. Here he steals every scene he’s in with exactly the same kind of easy confidence his character bragged about having when he was introduced in 'Skyfall'.
Remarkably, it is again the villains of the piece that remain the weakest. Waltz’s Blofeld isn’t exactly dialing it in - he’s too good for that - but there is an air of bored resignation that he isn’t given more to do. As can be said of Malik’s Safin, who despite a very hyped-up bit of marketing around the character fails to be as menacing and sinister as one might have been led to believe, or desperately hoped for. It’s not a bad performance - nobody in the film is bad - but it is more of a character study than a pantomime villain, which is at once both the right choice and also almost the wrong one. One wants Craig’s Bond in his final film to face off against a truly terrifying and formidable adversary, but perhaps that will, on repeat viewings, be the genius of Malik’s performance and we’ll see it as in keeping with the spirit of the film, which is to not necessarily give us what we think we want, but to give us what we actually need.
Finally, I’d like to address the accusations of “wokeness” that have been leveled at the film and which seem mainly to have been aimed at Lashana Lynch’s Nomi, in regard to her role as a “OO” and the (potential spoiler!) significance of her particular designation. However, there is nothing here that we haven’t seen very capable female field agents do before in films such as 'Tomorrow Never Dies', 'Die Another Day', and even 'Skyfall', so the backlash against her character seems particularly grievous and unwarranted. She proves herself to be more than capable and, as an actor, Lynch is infinitely watchable. There’s little doubt we’ll be seeing a lot more of her.
As for the rest of the film, there has definitely been an attempt to smooth off some of the edges of Bond. We do get a shower scene, but this time at least it’s just him (and a toothbrush) in the shower, instead of a surprise visit to someone else’s. But Bond is a man who has had some extra years on him, grown a bit, matured a bit since we last saw him, and so one would expect that such questionable behaviours are firmly behind him, as opposed to him being firmly behind someone else.
There’s more to be said and no doubt I will be saying it, but it will have to wait until the film has aired and I can talk freely about character and narrative without giving the game away. So, instead, I will simply say this: I loved 'No Time To Die'. And although my opinion of these films does tend to shift after subsequent viewings (and more often than not into the less favourable category), I suspect that, despite its flaws, it will only get better with time. We’ll see.
It remains only to say that there are some pretty serious events that take place in the film that would truly spoil your enjoyment of the film if you were privy to them prior to seeing it. With that in mind, I’d urge you to go soon but go safely. Avoid spoilers wherever you can and, it should go without saying that once you’ve seen it you should, like Bond, keep your cards close to your chest.