Review: ‘Fleming’ portrays author as a preview of his Bond character

Dominic Cooper stars as Ian Fleming in "Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond."
(Kata Vermes, Sky Atlantic / Ecosse Films)

Fleming — Ian Fleming — has become the subject of a biographical miniseries, “Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond.” Commencing Wednesday on BBC America, it mainly concerns the wartime adventures of the future creator of James Bond when he worked for British Naval Intelligence, dreamed of deeds of derring-do and carried on in London, smoking, drinking, gambling and sleeping with women, anticipating the manner of his future fictional alter ego.

The dramatic theory here is stated in an epigram from Fleming himself: “Everything I write has a precedent in truth.” And so writers John Brownlow and Don Macpherson and director Mat Whitecross have done their best to find that past that is prelude, to create scenes and scenarios with the flavor of the films later made from Fleming’s books — even as they are stuck with a hero (Dominic Cooper in the title role) somewhat less prepossessing than the one he invented.

These correspondences seem meant to be transparent, to elicit a mild chuckle of recognition. The chromatic spider-crawl of the famous “Bond” theme insinuates itself into the soundtrack. The phrase “license to kill” floats gaudily by. There are gadgets — a camera in a cigarette lighter, a pen with a sleeping gas, representing “the future of military espionage.” He comes home to find a woman in his bathtub.

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There are characters we’re to take as models for Bond’s boss, M (Samuel West as Adm. John Godfrey) and M’s bantering secretary, Miss Moneypenny (Anna Chancellor as Lt. Monday), and the prototypical Bond Girl (Annabelle Wallis as Muriel Wright, whom Fleming gave the Bondean nickname “Honeytop”) whose fate will occasion in our hero a moment of remorse while leaving no lasting marks. When Godfrey tells him, “War is not some entertainment laid on for your amusement,” it is hard not to mentally finish the sentence with the words “double-oh seven.”

We meet him as a callow rich kid and failure of distinction — “quite easily the worst stockbroker in London” — overshadowed by a heroic, successful older brother (Rupert Evans) and bossed around (though also advanced) by an interfering mother (Lesley Manville). The film has the immersive, warm-bath satisfactions of many British-made period pieces — there are some lovely overcoats — which, along with likable performances, makes for an enjoyable, if dramatically frustrating, series.

The necessity of action leads the filmmakers to some tortuous narrative constructs; they take Godfrey’s observation to Fleming, “You never let facts in the way of a good story,” as a kind of motto for themselves. Yet these feints are not inappropriate to the character they’ve conceived, a more heroic figure in his head than in life. Of killing a man, he says, “I think I’d be rather good at it,” wistfully, wrongly.

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Fleming makes some progress as a person through the course of the series — not all that much, but enough. In his relations with women he’s a little bit sadistic, though this is mitigated by making main love interest Ann O’Neil (Lara Pulver) a willing partner. (Different strokes for different folks.) But that we like him at all is largely due to the fact that Lt. Monday finds some good in him, and that Monday is played by the appealing Chancellor.

Despite its troublesome subject, the series succeeds, moderately, in letting you know that it knows that Bond, as his creator conceived him, is a relic, and that Fleming’s pulp-novel aspirations are worth skewering: When he gives a complicated drink order, in one scene, he is rewarded instead with a beer.



Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond infobox 1/29/14

‘Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond’

Where: BBC America

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday


Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)