Writer, Soldier, Spy: Ian Fleming Biopics

Posted in Screening Room by - January 27, 2016

Ian Fleming had a life worthy of a movie, so it’s no surprise that not one but three made-for-TV movies have been made, along with a few other documentaries. A while back, there was word of Moon director Duncan Jones helming a feature film focused on Fleming too. These movies have a lot of ground to cover, but most of all, they’re interested in Fleming’s World War 2 exploits, during which he worked in Intelligence, overseeing units such as the 30 Assault Unit and T-Force. His experiences in the war provided him with a lot of material that would provide the background for his James Bond novels.

For those interested in Fleming, I highly recommend the book Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett, which tells the story of his life from birth to death and deals with his creation of James Bond, his wartime adventures, and his relationships. Now, let’s take a look at how some of the films that have been made about the man have captured him.

Spymaker: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming

Fleming here is played by Jason Connery, Sean Connery’s son. Of the biopics we’re talking about in this article, this one is the most interested in psychoanalyzing Fleming. We see him as a child, establishing his uneasy relationship with his dominating mother. Later, we see him as a trouble-making teen, leading himself to get expelled from different prestigious schools before his mother landed him a job at a news agency, which would lead him into working in WW2 intelligence. Connery does well enough in the role, capturing his arc as a teenage troublemaker to a World War 2 spy.

One thing that all of these movies do however is matching Fleming’s life to the Bond novels, so this movie in particular feels a little bit like a made-for-TV remake of Casino Royale. As far as TV movies go, it’s not bad. It has that low-budget 16mm look that dominated a lot of TV movies of the 90s, but it has enough decent production value to make it all believable. Most of all, it’s an entertaining movie. You do get the sense that the filmmakers did this film because they couldn’t do their own Bond movie, but it does have decent insight into Fleming’s life and how Bond would come to be.

Goldeneye: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming

I wish I could say that the identical subtitle mistake of mine, but nope, if IMDB is anything to go by, this is yet another movie that also uses “The Secret Life of Ian Fleming.” This movie in particular is more interested in his wartime adventures, so in contrast to Spymaker, there’s less psychoanalysis and fictionalization, and more straightforward espionage. There’s a greater exploration of his relationships with women. But overall the movie feels too limited by budget and the story doesn’t flow as naturally as it could. I think that’s why Spymaker and Goldeneye fictionalize things so much and try to match Bond movies, it just provides a better narrative structure so people can follow Fleming’s life.

For all its faults, the movie is still entertaining and Charles Dance does a great job as Ian Fleming. I think that of all these three films, this is my favorite performance. Dance looks the part and acts it perfectly. Also, be on the look out for a young Christoph Waltz as a German spy.

Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond

Even if it goes so much off the rails and doesn’t have the best Fleming performance, this is the most entertaining and well-made of the stories, taking in the form of a 4-part miniseries.  Dominic Cooper plays Fleming as a smart, vulnerable playboy. The movies touches on his days as a journalist to his marriage with Ann O’ Neill. The miniseries exaggerates so many things about Fleming’s relationships and adventures, making it feel operatic but it works really well in that regard. Visually, it looks great and energetically captures the period. So far, this is probably the best adaptation produced about the man, even if it does succumb a bit to pairing Fleming’s life to his creation.

 So, have we had enough Fleming yet? Even with a quality miniseries like Fleming, there is still a feeling of unfulfilled potential. Maybe it’s that feeling that Fleming’s life feels like it deserves the big-screen rather than the television set. Fleming itself has the look of a film that could be released in theaters, but still, one feels that more could be done. Regardless, these are entertaining movies but once you read a book about Fleming you realize we haven’t seen nothing yet. 

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