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Our final guest post this week comes from Clare, a regular Lady Business guest. Clare is a book blogger, fan, and pop culture critic at The Literary Ominvore.


DENCH-James-Bond-SKYFALL-Poster-6




Spoilers for Skyfall follow.

Judi Dench has been M my entire life.

Objectively, that statement is false. I was born before GoldenEye came out and we are all tragically existing in a world where Ralph Fiennes is now playing the character. But subjectively, she is my M in the way that Nine is my Doctor. Growing up in the nineties, I knew a few objective facts about James Bond: he wore tuxedos, he slept with pretty ladies, and he answered to a woman.

I was born during a period of turmoil for the Bond franchise. After 1989’s Licence to Kill, Eon Productions started putting the next Bond film into production in 1990. But production was interrupted by a very messy struggle over money and distribution rights between Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Pathé, and Danjaq (the company that holds the rights to the James Bond film franchise and owns Eon Productions). The various lawsuits were resolved in 1992, but the new script went through several rewrites. While Timothy Dalton had been signed for three films, he resigned from the role in 1994. When all the dust finally settled, it was clear that the next Bond film was going to have to cover a lot of ground—on top of the upheaval inherent in a new Bond being introduced to a market that hadn’t seen him on the screen in six years, the Soviet Union fell during production.

Accordingly, GoldenEye is a soft reboot that tries to update Bond for the then-modern era. But because Bond’s everlasting appeal is rooted in the fact that he is the Great White Male fantasy, Bond himself can’t be radically changed. (He can only be deconstructed.) So the plot of the film and its trappings are all about James Bond grappling with the new world order—as Alec Trevelyan puts it sarcastically, "Well done, good job, but sorry, old boy, everything you risked your life and limb for has changed." And the great symbol of how everything has changed is the new M.

Judi Dench is the first M in the series presented as newly appointed and therefore unfamiliar, strange, and modern. It’s unusual enough, in the world of Bond, that even one of his Russian contacts comments incredulously about the new M being a lady. GoldenEye uses her to scold Bond for his problematic behavior, largely so that the audience can have their Great White Male fantasy cake and eat it too. Their first major interaction, where they take the measure of each other, reflects this. In clipped tones, she tells Bond, “I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though wasted on me, obviously appealed to that young woman I sent out to evaluate you.”

In the Brosnan films, M is never quite taken seriously. The films present them as being on the same level: Brosnan’s Bond often seems locked in a passive power struggle with her. Even her subordinates mock her. Before she’s even introduced in GoldenEye, her chief of staff calls her “the Evil Queen of Numbers.” The problem is that the subordinate Bond is being presented as the old guard, while superior M is being presented as the new guard.

It’s only when we get to the Craig years that the power imbalance is corrected and Dench’s M shifts into high gear. Trotting down a staircase, faced with the complexity of modern espionage, she barks, “Christ, I miss the Cold War.” She’s brittle, thoughtful, and functionally amoral. When M quirks her eyebrow, narrows her eyes, and turns down her mouth, the world is about to shake and God help whatever fool, terrorist, or conspiracy that has crossed her and England. This incarnation of Dench’s M is no diversity hire meant to try to make the politically incorrect (at best) Bond look good. This incarnation of M is a towering and terrifying spy master, whose short stature belies her ability to intimidate.

This is a woman in charge.

Nowhere is this more apparent than her relationship with Craig’s Bond. It would be very easy to characterize her relationship with Bond as maternal. Skyfall explicitly does so, as MI6 agent turned terrorist Silva constantly refers to her as “Mommy” and frames her as his and Bond’s shared mother. If we must characterize their relationship maternally, it’s not in the sense of a loving, supportive relationship between an older woman and a younger man. It’s in the much more primordial sense of her being the end-all and be-all of his existence (and, in Skyfall, Silva’s).

Genevieve Valentine has characterized the first three Craig Bond films as “the birth of a monster.” As Valentine puts it (much better than I can), M is explicitly the Frankenstein to his monster. She knows his strengths and his weaknesses, which she brutally exploits to her own ends. She doesn’t trust Bond because she’s fond of him; she trusts him because she chose him. She knows exactly how he works, because she made him. He becomes, over the course of the films, as every avenue and every hope of a normal life is stripped from him, a weapon crafted solely for her use. (Not unlike Bond’s palm print gun, come to think of it…) On the record or not, Craig’s Bond answers only to her in every fiber of his being. Without her in the picture, he answers only to himself.

That might make their relationship sound distant and cruel, but this connection is also, miraculously and believably, sustaining to the both of them. It’s also underscored by Dench and Craig’s amazing chemistry. If Brosnan only nominally (and sarcastically) took orders from M, Craig takes everything M throws at him (albeit after an adjustment period during Casino Royale). When he returns from the dead in Skyfall, M’s only response is a crackling “Where the hell have you been?” Craig’s astonishing and deeply threatening physicality as Bond never ruffles the smaller M for one moment. When he threatens to eject her out of a car in Skyfall, she only huffs and tells him that he wouldn’t dare. And of course he wouldn’t. He responds to her, no matter how much he may grumble, like a hunting hound responds to its mistress: as the ultimate authority. At the end, M knows that she chose her weapon correctly—and that’s the last thing she ever tells Bond.

It is disappointing to see Ralph Fiennes succeed Judi Dench in the role. It’s not so much that I’m hellbent on having a woman play M for all time (but how amazing would it be if Naomie Harris played M in forty years, finally promoting Moneypenny to the top like Lois Maxwell wanted?), but that Dench’s M is such a meaty, rich character. Although she won’t be in Spectre, her shadow completely consumes Bond. As the franchise moves forward, Craig’s Bond will always remain her weapon, all the more dangerous that there is now no one in the world that he answers to. It’s rare to see an older woman play a morally flexible, powerful character who is nonetheless presented positively in any film, let alone the James Bond franchise. Seven films with her were not nearly enough.

Date: 2015-06-25 09:41 am (UTC)
chelseagirl: Alice -- Tenniel (Default)
From: [personal profile] chelseagirl
I tend to forget that Dench was in the Bond films before Craig -- perhaps because their dynamic was so intense and interesting, and perhaps because I am not all that interested in Bond outside of their dynamic. (OK, and because of that moment early in Casino Royale when Craig's Bond walked out of the water and for the first time, it seemed, it was Bond being presented to the female(and gay male) gaze as an object . . . which seemed only fair.)

Date: 2015-06-28 08:57 pm (UTC)
litomnivore: (Default)
From: [personal profile] litomnivore
That is a fantastic moment; so little focus is placed on Bond's body before the Craig years. The Craig films really do focus on Bond's body, through his physicality, through the wounds he suffers (compare Brosnan being tortured in Die Another Day to Craig getting bullwhipped in the testicles in Casino Royale in the nude), and through his age in Skyfall—his failing body is a plot point in that film.

I am so fascinated by the Craig Bond films. I could talk about them all day.

Date: 2015-06-25 02:26 pm (UTC)
zachariah: (Default)
From: [personal profile] zachariah
Yes, this! Dench's M was incredible, I know eventually everyone gets replaced in this franchise, but it was hard to see her go.

Date: 2015-06-28 08:57 pm (UTC)
litomnivore: (Default)
From: [personal profile] litomnivore
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