Before he penned the adventures of fiction’s most famous spy, James Bond creator Ian Fleming was involved in intelligence himself during World War II. BBC America’s four-part miniseries “Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond,” premiering this Wednesday, January 29th at 10pm, melds the creator and his creation in telling the story of those war years, giving a cinematic skew to the author’s naval career and his romance with the woman he’d eventually marry.
The series draws connections between its subject’s experiences and the character who’d become the center of a 50-year film franchise while less comfortably attempting to present a psychological portrait of the type of person who dreams up a suave, hyper-masculine super agent based vaguely on himself. If James Bond is the man Ian Fleming wanted to be, his qualities don’t always wear so well in the context of the real world, where the eventual writer comes across as reckless and self-aggrandizing more than he manages to charm — a fact about which the series doesn’t seem to know how it feels.
Written by John Brownlow (“Sylvia”) and Don MacPherson (“The Avengers”) and directed by Mat Whitecross (“The Road to Guantanamo”), “Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond” stars Dominic Cooper in its title role, one that’s best served by his weightless appeal — he’s more convincingly roguish than dangerous, which is part of the point. The series begins with Ian as the black sheep of his well-to-do family, a ladies’ man putting minimal effort into being, as his lone client puts it before dumping him, “quite easily the worst stockbroker in London.”
Resentful of his controlling, class-conscious mother Eve (Lesley Manville) for being disappointed in him and his better behaved brother Peter (Rupert Evans) for outshining him, Ian is a bit of a poor little rich boy. He’s entranced by a woman he meets at a jazz club — Lady Ann O’Neill (Lara Pulver), who already has a husband and a lover, and who at first laughs him off.
But Ian finds a place for himself when war breaks out and brings with it a kind of world’s-ending headiness that suits his devil-may-care brashness. “I want someone from outside the system — someone with the guts to play dirty,” he’s told when approached about a job at the Naval Intelligence Division. Bored by the admin work that dominates his position, he takes it on himself to come up with plans to fool the Germans with corpses carrying false information and to try to convince Admiral Darlan to hand the French fleet over to the British despite lacking the authority to negotiate. Newly empowered, he forcefully makes his way into Ann’s life, their relationship unfolding with a sadomasochistic edge that includes slaps to the face and spankings. Pulver, who between this and her role in Irene Adler in “Sherlock” has become the go-to actress for kink made cuddly, gamely holds together a character whose taste for game-playing matches Ian’s until it abruptly doesn’t.
Characters refer to Fleming as a puzzle, but he’s less the conundrum than the series’ take on him, which alternates between the intoxicatingly cinematic — German bombs blowing out the windows as Ian and Ann share their first kiss — and the shrinkingly petulant, as when Ian complains about not being sent to the front line with the special commando unit he helped organize. Ian is accused of treating both war and love as a game, and the series has difficulty convincingly suggesting he ever learns to feel otherwise.
“Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond” seems to side with its imaginative protagonist in preferring a more grandiose and slightly fudged take on events — each installment starts off like a Bond film and ends with a note that while it’s based on a true story, some aspects have been fictionalized for effect. But that leaves us fighting through the unreliability of an off-the-screen narrator who’s providing neither a straightforward take on Fleming’s life nor a thoroughly subjective one as he would likely have it, without the preening, pouty edge. If the Ian on screen ultimately channels the ways he wishes to see himself and the world into what he describes as a “potboiler,” the series gives little steady delineation between fact and fantasy, its subject remaining out of focus. To dream of being irresistible, heroic and fearless, after all, is not such a hard to understand thing. Its how that desires were borne of personal dramas and failings that “Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond” never quite pins down.