Sunday, February 9, 2014

FLEMING: THE Miniseries THAT WOULD BE Interesting

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FLEMING: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE BOND, a miniseries from BBC America (insert grumbling about lack of actual British programming on the network), begins this week. It tells the story of Ian Fleming (Dominic Cooper, Captain America), an aimless playboy whose talents are being squandered. Longing for adventure, he jumps at the chance to help the British military during World War II. And somewhere along the way, he’ll also be falling in love and writing novels starring the famous superspy, James Bond.

The first part of the mini opens with Ian on his honeymoon with wife Ann (Lara Pulver, Sherlock’s Irene Adler) in 1952. When not motor-boating about (literally and, well, you know…), he is finishing up the book Casino Royale. I guess this gives us a glimpse of where he’s heading, but I am baffled by recent programs’ insistence to start at the end. Why not let the story play out in a natural progression? In some cases, perhaps it benefits the tale being told, but in the example of FLEMING, it adds nothing to the narrative, and I really wish it hadn’t been done.

Once that bit is out of the way, we’re back to the late 1930s. The Nazis are rising, and while Ian has no love for them, he also isn’t overly concerned, spending his days bedding women and illegally obtaining first edition tomes for his collection, including Hitler’s own work. This is where we see who Ian Fleming is, and his development begins.

Fleming is a familiar enough type. He’s rich and free-wheeling, with little regard for others, even those he’s intimate with, which is currently Muriel (Annabelle Wallis, The Tudors), a relationship of convenience for him, not love. He doesn’t even try to live up to the sterling reputation of his brother, Peter (Rupert Evans, The Village), much to the disapproval of his mother, Evelyn (Lesley Manville, Cranford). And he certainly doesn’t take his job as a stock broker seriously, losing his only client without losing a bit of sleep. In fact, sleep and other bed-based activities are the cause of his failure.

This is a hard place for a drama to start. The above paragraph does not describe a likeable character, and while some series may set out to paint a complex picture of someone who is only rough on the surface, no compassionate side of Ian is visible throughout the initial hour. He’s intelligent and charming, but that’s not enough to earn him viewer sympathy, especially when so much of his attitude is insincere, an act to win over those such as his colleague, Second Officer Monday (Anna Chancellor, The Hour).

Even when Fleming does good, he’s doing bad. He gets information from Nazi U-boat captains, but goes about it entirely the wrong way, angering his superiors and barely escaping punishment himself. Throughout it all, he doesn’t show a hint of remorse or second guessing, which is a recipe for disaster in real life. Unless he really is just that lucky.
Cooper does a fine enough job as the cad, but those looking for the subtleties in his performance, hoping to access the inner psyche, will be disappointed. Like the tone of the show itself, he’s flashy and of less substance than one expects. I feel like most actors would play this role the same, but there are some out there that could bring a magnetic essence to the part that would save it. Not knowing much about the real Fleming, though, this may be exactly the portrayal he deserves.

FLEMING: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE BOND is useful because it paints us a portrait of the author behind the famous series, something many of us know little or nothing about. It helps fill in why he wrote what he wrote, Bond being, as Ann says in the beginning and Ian denies, Fleming’s fantasy laid bare. Ian Fleming wants to be the smooth hero. He does make it a little bit down that path in the first hour, but future parts will need to be viewed before we see if he ever gets very close to the dream.

The pacing does drag in parts, and the structure seems loose, as is often the case with biopics, being resigned to get through several events whether they serve the purpose of the miniseries or not. There’s clearly an attempt at a cohesive arc, with Ann appearing frequently in the past timeframe, but I don’t get the sense that FLEMING is truly a love story. This means it flounders a bit, not quite deciding what it is, and so not quite impressing as it should.

FLEMING: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE BOND airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on BBC America.

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