Certain countries are known for certain genres in cinema and Britain, which is not well-known for its cinema, has become famous because of characters as different as John Le Carre’s George Smiley and Ian Fleming’s James Bond, who are spies. Smiley did not make a successful transition to cinema, but film is where James Bond still thrives.
Since this is a film column we can put Smiley aside and look at the British spy film in which the latest film is from the over-the-top Kingsman series (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), which can be read as comedy/parody, although not quite from the same mould as the Austin Powers films, which is also British.
If one looks at what demarcates the British spy film from the American one, James Bond from Jason Bourne, one could propose that where the America films are plot or conspiracy driven, lavishing attention on the devious ways in which the military establishment is trying to manipulate the world and its own citizens, the James Bond films are virtually apolitical – in as much as there is nothing particularly ‘current’ in them.
They are character-driven and only provide the hero with the opportunity to be masculine. Where one might take Jason Bourne’s trajectory in the series to actually reflect on the doings of spy agencies – like the assassination of an African statesman in The Bourne Identity (2002) - it is doubtful if people anywhere will ever take a billionaire trying to corner all the drinking water in Bolivia (Quantum of Solace, 2008) as a serious enough threat to the world to merit their concern.
The difference between the American and British spy films is perhaps that audiences are genuinely curious about what Americans may be doing to the world, and to themselves, while they know that Britain is only a former world power with little say in the world’s future. James Bond is hence a bit of an anachronism and the quasi-tragic dimension that Daniel Craig brings to the role is essentially due to regret over Britain having been left behind. This is perhaps why Skyfall (2012) looks and sounds like a lament to Britain’s lost scientific edge, when Bond fights the villain in a space untouched by technology. The Imitation Game (2014) pointed out - just when the world was going ballistic over Steve Jobs - that a Britisher (Alan Turing) had a much greater contribution to make to computer science.
The differences between the American and British spy thriller suggests that while it would be impossible to parody an American spy film – because one can never be sure about what the ‘facts’ are – the British spy film lends itself immediately to self-parody since one approaches all British claims to world domination with disbelief. This, I think sums up the difference between the American and British spy film: while we approach the American film with curiosity, we approach the British film with the disbelief reserved for ‘pure fun’.