Casino Royale (12A)Requiem (12A)
The man with the golden grunt
Sunday 19 November 2006
Some fans of the 007 franchise are outraged by the casting of Daniel Craig: to think that Bond could be blond! That's not the half of it - he's also in black and white, partly at least. The film starts with a flashback to James Bond's first ever killing, a very brusque and thuggish execution in a toilet. By the time the blood trickles down that famous gun-barrel signature image, you realise this time that the makers aren't kidding: this is going to be the most sanguinary Bond film yet.
Casino Royale feels less like a film proper than like an extremely hard-headed rebranding exercise: 007 dusted down and muscled up for an age that expects a bit less middle-aged suavity, a bit more graphic bone-crunching. The order of the day is a back-to-basics muscularity; out with the increasingly glib hi-tech, in with Olympic-level athletic action, as in the genuinely head-spinning free-running routine that is the first big action sequence.
The familiar Bond character trademarks are systematically flouted, rather than smugly ironised. Craig's Bond makes several egregious gaffes, rashly loses his heart, and is so lacking in silver-tongued wit that his love interest (Eva Green) actually smirks at the clumsiness of his lines. But that's because he's not really James Bond yet: based on the first (and if I remember correctly, the dullest) of Ian Fleming's novels, this film is effectively a superhero "origin" story, starting with Bond winning his "double-0" status, and ending with him earning the right to use his time-honoured catchphrase.
Craig is certainly a more muscular and menacing Bond than we're used to - the first 007 who looks as if he'd headbutt you for spilling his Martini. After he's administered that beating and another cold-blooded assassination at the start, the credit sequence ends by isolating Craig's chilly blue stare and you think, Christ, they've actually gone ahead and made 007 a stone-cold psycho. He softens up in the course of the film, but where previous Bonds were lean and foxy, Craig is chunky and wolfish, a sullen and forbidding juggernaut. When he finally puts on a tux, you expect him to station himself at the casino door and tell punters, "Sorry pal, no trainers." It's significant that the only time he gets to deliver a really sharp one-liner is when his balls are being whipped with a knotted rope.
Uncharacteristically brutish for a Bond film, Casino Royale is being touted as a return to the original spirit of Fleming (that last torture scene is straight from the novel), but it feels just as much like a homage to Mickey Spillane. There's also an unreconstructed racism that comes as a shock - an early action sequence has Bond's indestructible white male cutting a swathe through armies of helpless African opponents. That's just before a shot in which a group of little black children grin in awe at a beautiful white lady on a beautiful white horse.
No-nonsense to a fault, Casino Royale mercilessly clears out all the excess gimmickry and facetiousness - it's a severe and ultimately joyless spring-clean of a film. The best things about it are the collapse of a Venetian palazzo at the end, and Eva Green's Vesper Lynd, with her cool, cerebral trans-Manche delivery and geometric Klimt features. But the dialogue is pure lead, and I suspect Crash writer Paul Haggis (credited with Bond veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) is responsible for the creeping tone of psychobabble: Bond is forever being told off about his "ego", a word that's as alien to the 007 universe as if he went around shooting villains because he needed closure.
In the early Seventies, around the time Roger Moore was doing his own rebranding on Bond, a young German woman called Anneliese Michel was exorcised by her parents. The incident, and her resulting death, inspired last year's US hit The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a gruesome apologia for Christian fundamentalist anti-rationalism under cover of a supernatural thriller. Now young German director Hans-Christian Schmid offers a sane, detached and touching realist treatment of the theme in Requiem, with Sandra Hüller as a young student with epilepsy who attempts to escape her stifling Catholic home, only for superstitious panic to pull her back in. It's a small but bitterly intense story, told with keen sensitivity and sober tenderness, and it rightly won Hüller the Best Actress prize in Berlin this year. A somewhat Loachian exercise, shot and designed in deliberately drab early-1970s shades of brown and beige, Requiem is as far from sexily must-see as it's possible to get. The fact that it's competing in this week's marketplace against a Bond blockbuster arguably proves - contradicting the film's secular viewpoint - that there is a Devil, after all, at least when it comes to cinema distribution. Still, it's one of the year's best films.
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