The Ian Fleming in BBC America’s Fleming will often bend the truth to suit his needs—a habit he downplays as merely “enhancing” a few “details.” Likewise, a disclaimer for this four-episode miniseries warns viewers that while the show is based on true events, “some names, places, and incidents… have been changed for dramatic effect.” That would seem to place the makers of this show in league with their subject, but there’s one critical difference: Fleming the man knew which parts of a story to punch up. Fleming the show lacks the same instinct.
Aside from a brief flash-forward in the first episode, Fleming follows the life of James Bond’s creator during World War II. At that time, Fleming (played by Dominic Cooper) was an officer working a desk job in British naval intelligence, long before 007 made his debut in the novel Casino Royale. So the series aims to dramatize the recipe for Bond—“Everything I write has a precedent in truth,” reads the tantalizing Fleming quote that opens each episode—by exploring the author’s dealings as a spy, a lover, and a servant of Queen and Country.
Fleming mostly avoids the hokey approach of mapping Bond clichés onto Fleming’s life. Yes, the prim, smart-mouthed young officer orders a drink “shaken, not stirred,” and his Navy colleague Monday is an on-the-nose archetype for Miss Moneypenny. The four-note motif of the 007 theme surfaces throughout the show at tense moments, too, although it’s subtle, presumably to keep the lawyers at bay. These easy references are forgivable, because there aren’t too many of them, and they advance the show’s central idea that Bond is an enhanced version of Fleming himself.
That thesis is hardly startling—the parallels between Bond and Fleming are obvious to anybody with a cursory knowledge of the author. So Fleming focuses instead on the nature of the connection, which the show insists is not so simple. Bond is “you as you’d like to be,” says Fleming’s love interest in the flash-forward that kicks off the series, “Your fantasy. Is that who he is?” Fleming frowns and replies, “Not exactly. Not in the way that you’re thinking.”
So, in what way then? The way Fleming frames it, Bond is less of an aspirational vision for his creator than a way for Fleming to exorcise his demons. Bond is an unflinching killer; Fleming’s bravado falls away when he holds a man’s life in his hands. Bond is a cynical, conquering lover; Fleming struggles to detach sex from affection. Bond isn’t the man who Fleming wants to be. Rather, the character acts as the author’s counterpoint—a point of contrast through which Fleming can better understand himself.
This is a savvy, nuanced take on Ian Fleming’s career, but it also sets a trap for the show. By defining its hero largely in terms of how he isn’t Bond, Fleming creates a void at the center. The script lacks the deeper characterization that would give Fleming a soul of his own, and Cooper’s serviceable, straightforward performance doesn’t add much dimension either. The upshot is that it’s hard to get invested in Fleming’s travails and triumphs, as he too often comes off as a watered-down version of 007.
The miniseries’ pacing is a source of frustration too. In a certain respect, this is a brisk show: It leaps ahead months at a time, going from the earliest days of World War II to the restoration of peace in just four 45-minute episodes. That’s just the backdrop, though. The characters’ own stories plod along with barely discernible advancement. Especially in the first half of the series, Fleming feels like it was designed for a 22-episode arc rather than a four-episode sprint.
Most of this slowness is rooted in the love affair between its hero and Ann O’Neill (Lara Pulver), a married socialite who entertains herself with other men while her husband is away on the front lines. Fleming is preoccupied with this relationship, attempting to render it in terms of torrid, volatile passions. But the BBC-approved sex scenes—in which clumsy shots of tensing back muscles stand in for intercourse—are emblematic of the overall plot thread. Cooper and Pulver deliver their lines gamely, with whispers and glances that hint at deeper layers and innuendo, but there’s not much they can do for dialogue that’s as flat on screen as it is on the page.
Fleming’s central flaw is summed up in its subtitle: “The Man Who Would Be Bond.” That “would be” looms large over this show, because it’s tough to shake the sense that the story would be more exciting, more intriguing, and even more complex if Bond were here instead of Fleming. It’s as if these four episodes are deleted scenes from the literary and cinematic career of James Bond 007—they’re somewhat interesting as context, but they don’t hold up on their own. That’s a disservice to Ian Fleming, who did indeed live an interesting life while Britain fought the war. Fleming’s problem is not the story it tells, but the details it chooses to enhance.
Directed by: Mat Whitecross
Starring: Dominic Cooper, Lara Pulver, Anna Chancellor
Debuts: Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern on BBC America
Format: Four-episode miniseries
Full series watched for review