Wednesday, 5 February 2014

TV Corner: Fleming

With a depressing 625 days still to go before the release of the 24th James Bond film, fans of the world's greatest secret agent are seeking a fix to satisfy their filthy habit. Fortunately, that fix is about to arrive in the shape of the criminally underrated Dominic Cooper as James Bond's creator Ian Fleming, in a new four-part miniseres from Sky Atlantic called, with devilish cunning, Fleming. Or, if you're in America and not into the whole brevity thing, Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond.

Fleming covers the wartime exploits of the original sexist, misogynist dinosaur, taking us from his final days as the world's worst stockbroker right through to the end of World War II, by which time he was a reasonably successful Naval Intelligence officer with hundreds of ridiculous hun-foiling schemes in his pocket waiting to be assigned to his literary alter ego. Fleming's battles with military red tape while he struggles to make some of these plots reality are balanced with his volatile relationship with Ann O'Neill (Lara Pulver), with whom he conducted a lengthy affair before marrying her in 1952: an event which did not see the end of his (or her) extra-marital escapades.

Anyone who's ever taken any interest in Ian Fleming will be aware that his life was nowhere near as bonkersly mentaloid as Bond's, and that in fact he spent great swathes of his career sitting behind a desk. It's natural, therefore, to be thrown into a mild panic that any dramatisation of his story is going to be either truthful and spectacularly dull, or a second-rate Bondesque travesty full of dream sequences and weapons-grade cobblers. It is with no small sense of relief, then, to discover that Fleming mostly avoids both of these pitfalls, cherry-picking the most telly-worthy of its subject's adventures, filleting out all the typing and filing, throwing in a soup├žon of fantasy without devaluing the truth and being bloody entertaining to boot.

The first episode flies by in a whirl of period detail, fabulous dresses and bombing raids on London, and drops Cooper straight into the role of a feckless playboy with no respect for money or women. Despite looking about as much like Ian Fleming as my mum does, Cooper is excellent as the aimless, bored toff, bringing his innate charm to the role of a pretty unlikable cad. Lara Pulver is great too, a porcelain princess without a hair out of place but a gaping hole where her moral compass should be. Anna Chancellor also gives good hairdo as Second Officer Monday, obvious Moneypenny substitute and (entirely fictional) secretary to Fleming's Navy boss, Admiral Godfrey - largely believed to be the template for M.

Things get a bit darker and more complex thereafter, as John Brownlow and Don Macpherson's script probes Ian and Ann's heavily S&M-tinged affair (their first sex scene is uncomfortable viewing for a couple of reasons), and Fleming's involvement in the war becomes muddy and a little tricky to follow. In an attempt to up the action ante, those cheeky fantasy sequences creep in, but they're handled satisfyingly enough to please the casual viewer without insulting the obsessive fan. Plus, let's not forget: this is how Fleming liked to see himself; we're watching a man's imagination unfold on screen as much as his story. And while Dominic Cooper might be less successful at waving a gun around than he is at portraying a lazy socialite, as it's the nearest he'll ever get to playing James Bond it seems fair to cut him some slack.
Fleming should be taken with a fistful of salt, but it's a vast improvement on previous screen versions of the author's life (remember Charles Dance in Goldeneye? Of course not). It's to its credit that it's not fixated on being Bond 23.5, instead becoming a ripping war thriller which treads its own path and delivers a portrayal of a complex man evolving as a person and as a writer. It undertakes its problematic objective in a knowing and intelligent fashion, and survives with only minor casualties. Mission accomplished.

Fleming starts on Wednesday 12th February at 9pm on Sky Atlantic HD and will be available to download on Sky Go from Wednesday 5 February at 9pm.

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