In the run-up to the release of No Time to Die, the final James Bond film to star Daniel Craig, a familiar debate started up again: What was Craig’s best movie as 007? More specifically, which do you prefer: Casino Royale or Skyfall? Both are very good, but there’s no question which is superior. It’s Casino Royale, and it’s because Eva Green is in it.
One of the key components of the franchise has been the “Bond girl,” the bewitching beauty that’s a love interest and sidekick all rolled into one. Usually, the superspy meets her early on in the film, they flirt, lots of action scenes happen and, eventually, he saves the day and takes her to bed. The Bond girl is like his trophy for doing such a good job. Plus, she validates what a stud Bond is — maybe she initially rebuffed him, but she’ll see the light soon enough. After all, no woman can resist James Bond.
That’s a pretty sexist trope, of course, and one of the welcome wrinkles that the Daniel Craig installments have introduced is the notion that the Bond girl should be more than mere eye candy needing to be rescued. Craig has talked about his desire to surround Bond with strong female characters in his films in order to challenge 007’s misogyny, and while “strong female character” has become a screenwriter cliché, you actually do notice how many interesting women are in the Craig films. But the best of the bunch was always Green, who not only remade the idea of the Bond girl but also cast a long shadow over the rest of Craig’s time as 007. It’s fair to say that James never got over the death of her character, Vesper Lynd — and neither could the filmmakers who worked on Bond pictures after Casino Royale. As No Time to Die makes clear again, the Craig films were always about Vesper and the number she did on Bond.
If you’ve forgotten Casino Royale’s plot, Bond has recently been promoted to double-oh status and is perhaps a little anxious about proving himself. He’s been assigned to infiltrate a high-stakes card game and see to it that he defeats Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a mysterious individual financing terrorist operations around the world who’s also competing in the tournament. But Bond won’t be going alone: He’ll be joined by a woman from the Treasury whose job it is to ensure that Bond doesn’t blow the millions the government has floated MI6 for this card game.
Fifteen years later, Bond and Vesper’s first meeting remains an all-timer. It’s on a train on the way to the tournament, and they quickly size each other up. Some things are immediately apparent: Vesper is not overly wowed by the guy, and she’s not impressed at his abilities to deduce her whole backstory based on how she dresses and comports herself. Technically, Vesper is Casino Royale’s Bond girl, but there’s nothing submissive or docile in the way Green plays her. She’s a high-ranking official who’s good at her job, and she can dissect Bond as well as he can dissect her.
It’s an incredibly sexy scene consisting of two people just talking about work — and it’s especially electric when she starts to wonder aloud if Bond is the right man to ensure that Le Chiffre loses. She slyly pokes at his swagger, and you can see him get a little uncomfortable. It’s obvious how much Vesper is enjoying taking him down a peg. “Having just met you, I wouldn’t go as far as calling you a cold-hearted bastard,” she tells Bond. “But it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine. You think of women as disposable pleasures rather than meaningful pursuits. So, as charming as you are, Mr. Bond, I will be keeping my eye on our government’s money and off your perfectly formed ass.” Clearly, he’s not the only lethal assassin on this train.
Beyond just being a sparkling scene, the moment skillfully establishes their flirty but evenly-matched rapport. There is a lot of pressure on Bond to deliver — he’s already screwed up a couple times by that point in Casino Royale, and he can’t afford to fail at the card table — and Vesper will have a certain say over whether he can be advanced more money should he start losing. Vesper understands his dilemma, and so they become partners in this mission in a way that 007 rarely did with any previous Bond girl.
Funny to think that Green, for obvious reasons, initially wasn’t interested in the part, which was also supposedly being circled by the likes of Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron. “I was probably a bit stupid or naive,” Green said a few years ago. “I said, ‘Ugh, a Bond girl? What kind of prissy girl is that?’ … [I]t wasn’t until they gave me the script [nine months later] that I realized it was a meaty role. I didn’t see her as a Bond girl. She’s a strong character; she’s got cracks.”
Indeed, while Vesper does some of the typical Bond-girl duties — she looks stunning in a dress, and she does ultimately fall for him — it was noticeable how different she was in many regards. For one thing, Vesper saves his life after he’s poisoned and at death’s door. And because they’re working together to stop Le Chiffre, there’s a mutual respect between them, which didn’t happen that often in earlier 007 films, back when the Bond girl was merely a conquest for our dashing hero. In fact, he’s so smitten with her that unlike most Bond girls who seem like a passing dalliance — what Vesper said on the train about him was very, very true of previous cinematic 007s — she inspires him to give up spycraft, quitting MI6 to live with her in Venice. When he later thinks that she’s betrayed him, he follows her to a secret rendezvous, leading to a shootout and an incredibly traumatic sequence in which Bond tries to save Vesper from drowning. As is often the case in Casino Royale, though, Bond fails, leading to a heart-wrenching moment as he loses his true love. No Bond girl’s death ever elicited such a tormented reaction.
Adding to his anguish is the later realization that Vesper hadn’t, in fact, turned traitor. (She was simply serving as a double agent in order to keep Bond safe — and to protect her secret lover from before she met 007.) Granted, Vesper may not have been the most three-dimensional of characters — James Bond is always the focus of a James Bond movie — but Green made her funny, smart, mysterious, brilliant. And the weight of Vesper’s death led directly to Quantum of Solace, which is largely about Bond seeking vengeance on the mysterious individuals who forced her to betray the mission.
Unfortunately, while the follow-up film further developed Casino Royale’s darker take on 007, what became obvious pretty quickly is that, without Eva Green as Vesper, Bond himself wasn’t nearly as captivating. Now, he was just a morose killer without a worthy sparring partner. Notably, Olga Kurylenko portrayed Quantum of Solace’s primary Bond girl, Camille, but she never had any sex scenes with the spy — they’re bonded more by the shared desire to get revenge on Mathieu Amalric’s villain, who’s killed people they both care about. But even the woman Bond does take to bed (Gemma Arterton) feels more like a brief distraction — Bond is still mourning for Vesper. No other woman can compare.
But to be fair, Quantum of Solace was a weak film all around — lame bad guy, dull action sequences — which made the next Craig installment, Skyfall, such a relief. From its terrific opener to its transcendent Adele theme song, from Javier Bardem’s creepy megalomaniac to its bold final showdown at Bond’s childhood home, Skyfall was a confident righting of the ship. Interestingly, though, the film didn’t try to give Bond a replacement Bond girl, almost as if acknowledging that Vesper couldn’t be duplicated. The closest Skyfall got was the introduction of Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, giving the two characters the sort of seduction scene common in the franchise.
Famously, Bond and Moneypenny have always had great chemistry on screen but have never slept together. (It’s rumored the producers nixed the idea of Craig and Harris hooking up because it would go against tradition.) Still, their Skyfall scene was steamier than the usual verbal back-and-forth previous Bonds have engaged in with the character. But because audiences knew it wouldn’t amount to anything — “I think Moneypenny and Bond can’t ever cross that line because they’re both so professional,” Harris has said — it was all a great tease. But it also suggested that, at least in the back of the filmmakers’ heads, the series knew that Vesper was special. She’s not as front of mind for Bond as she’d been in Quantum of Solace, but the franchise hadn’t found anyone to replace her in his heart.
The Craig films’ pattern of “one good one, one not-so-good-one” continued with Skyfall’s disappointing sequel Spectre, which brought back one of Bond’s most formidable foes, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), and then stranded him in a dreary story full of “shocking” revelations — including the fact that Blofeld had been behind Vesper’s death. It was a cheap way to create some unearned pathos in an otherwise mediocre film by recalling the series’ most tragic moment. But the twist didn’t quite land, and neither did the attempt to give Bond a new love interest in the form of Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), a psychiatrist who’s the daughter of one of Bond’s foes, Mr. White.
Seydoux is a terrific actress — equally good in arthouse fare (Blue Is the Warmest Color) and Tom Cruise action films (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) — but she struggled to have much of a spark with Craig. True to Craig’s word, Spectre again paired Bond with a sharp, assertive woman — Madeleine hates guns, but that’s because she had to learn how to use them as a child to defend herself — but their romance dragged down Spectre. Turns out, a “smart female character” wasn’t enough: What was great about Bond with Vesper is that you sensed that she pushed him — that their connection was intellectual and soulful, as opposed to just physical. (That she wasn’t all that impressed by him initially seemed to please him — she thought highly enough of herself that he was going to have to earn her admiration.) Sadly, those deeper feelings simply weren’t stirred by his relationship with Madeleine, no matter how hard Spectre tried to sell it.
So it was a disappointment to discover that, in No Time to Die, the producers still want us to be invested in 007’s relationship with Madeleine — in fact, much of the film’s emotional impact stems from us caring deeply about what happens to these two estranged lovebirds. I’m sorry to say that No Time to Die doesn’t do any better at making their romance seem that magical — and it certainly doesn’t help that the film’s opening finds Bond returning to Vesper’s grave, saying aloud how much he still misses her. The character’s acknowledgement of the Vesper-sized hole at the center of the Craig series didn’t make it any less painful or disappointing.
Funny enough, Craig himself is aware of Vesper’s haunting of the series. In a recent interview, he talked about how her death served as the connective thematic tissue for the rest of the 007 films he made. “I kind of was interested in that from the beginning,” Craig said. “We’d often have these meetings on nearly all of [the Bond films] where we’d go, ‘Let’s make it standalone, let’s just stick it somewhere where it doesn’t join in.’ And we couldn’t avoid [the aftereffects of Vesper’s death]. We just couldn’t. I don’t know whether other people see it, but I couldn’t ever really get away from this traumatic thing that had happened to him on Casino.”
Now that Craig has finished his run as Bond, there will be endless speculation about who should next play the iconic spy. But as good as Craig was in the role, he was never better than when he teamed up with Green. It was their onscreen chemistry that didn’t just make them a great couple but also gave us a more thoughtful, vulnerable Bond than we’d ever seen before. Funny enough, he’d never been sexier, either.
And she wasn’t just good for Bond. Even though none of the subsequent films were as strong as Casino Royale, you can feel them honorably trying to live up to the challenge that Vesper leveled at 007 when she first met him. Was he always going to be that cold-hearted bastard who treated women like playthings? Or was he going to grow up? Her death haunts Bond the way it haunts the later Craig films. Eventually, someone else will be cast as James Bond, and I’m sure that person will do a fine job. But the irony of Craig’s legacy in the role is that someone could take his place — nobody was ever able to take Eva Green’s.