The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s

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The James Bond franchise’s modernisation of its female lead roles comes to a head in 1999’s The World Is Not Enough – meet Elektra King and Dr Christmas Jones.

This feature contains major spoilers for The World Is Not Enough and also, funnily enough, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

“Elektra, this is a game I can’t afford to play.”

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Ah, I’ve been expecting this one. On this mission, an injured Bond returns to duty after an explosion at MI6 headquarters to face a villain with a personal vendetta against Judi Dench’s M. And operative-turned-cyber-terrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) has a plan to humiliate his old boss by — oh sorry, I’m being told we’re still on Pierce Brosnan and we’ll get to Skyfall another time.

Anyway, The World Is Not Enough has Bond taking things personally again after Sir Robert King (David Calder) is assassinated on his watch and he’s subsequently assigned to protect King’s daughter (not that one) and heiress Elektra, (Sophie Marceau) the survivor of a kidnapping by ex-KGB terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle).

With Renard still on the loose, Elektra is determined to finish her late father’s work of building an oil pipeline through the Caucasus. Hot on the villain’s trail, 007 teams up with nuclear physicist Dr Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) to track down some stolen plutonium that could be used to destroy King’s legacy.

There’s a whole lot to set this one apart from other Bond movies, be it the rare sight of an action sequence on the Thames, (as part of the longest pre-title sequence to date) the poignant farewell to Desmond Llewelyn, (who sadly passed away weeks after the film was released in November 1999) or the fairly unique arch-villain.

In fact, we’ve gone into the story behind the making of the 19th James Bond film in a previous episode of the Film Stories podcast, which you can hear below:

This lands on a couple of other landmarks too – first, it’s Brosnan’s third film and while Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me, and, er… Skyfall are all held as high watermarks for the other leads who made that many, The World Is Not Enough is often considered an outlier. As with Tomorrow Never Dies though, you can definitely argue that Brosnan’s performance is similarly refined as he grows in the role.

But this is also the last Bond film of its decade, in the last decade to date where that’s meant much. Intentionally or not, it’s a transitional outing like the similarly placed outings On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Moonraker, and Licence To Kill before it – it’s both of a set with the other 1990s movies and strikingly atypical of the series formula.

Mostly, what it takes and refines from this decade and its gradual modernisation is the portrayal of women. GoldenEye burst out of the gate by giving Bond an expert ally who sees through his bullshit as well as a memorable henchwoman. Tomorrow Never Dies built on this by reforming the villain’s doomed partner and the counterpart agent, both familiar archetypes from previous adventures.

This outing very much winds up being a tale of two “Bond girls” – one who genuinely subverts and transcends expectations and the other who’s maybe the most maligned aspect of the film, whether fairly or not. But together, they also represent the one and only runthrough from a status quo that producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson spent the latter half of the 1990s trying to build for Bond.

It’s not for me, another self-professed feminist bloke who goes on about James Bond too much, to lead the reappraisal of The World Is Not Enough as a landmark text, but next to most of the last 18 weeks of Bondrambles, I reckon this outing is a relative breath of fresh air. This is your last warning for SPOILERS, which will commence after the following image of Bond sitting down for a chat with those female leads…

Elektra’s complex

“You understand? Nobody can resist me.”

The character of Elektra King was created by screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Established as the writers of the 1991 legal drama Let Him Have It, Purvis and Wade had also collaborated on a spec script about two 007 fans growing up in Northern England.

But it was their work on the post-modern highwaymen caper Plunkett And Macleane (which was eventually released during production of Bond 19) that convinced Broccoli and Wilson to offer them a job. Asked what they thought James Bond should do next, the duo pitched various schemes for 007 to foil, reportedly involving designer viruses and blowing up the moon.

(The former of those made its way into Purvis and Wade’s latest, No Time To Die, so there’s still time for the latter to turn up in a Bond movie!)

But Broccoli had seen a news programme about different players vying for oil reserves in the Caspian Sea after the collapse of the Soviet Union and saw a potential Bond villain scheme unfurling. It was Purvis and Wade who then suggested that a villain inspired by the case of Patty Hearst, an abducted heiress who became embroiled with the criminals who abducted her.

Broccoli and Wilson both went for it, and this choice informed their search for a director. Michael Apted was by no means the most obvious choice to make an action movie, but the producers noted that he’d directed women to Oscar nominations in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Nell, and Gorillas In The Mist. Rightly confident in second-unit director Vic Armstrong’s abilities to handle the action, they wanted someone experienced in female-centric stories.

According to Neal Purvis, Broccoli was especially enthused by the idea, buzzing: “With Elektra, Bond thinks he has found Tracy, but he’s really found Blofeld.”

Let’s not get incredibly literal with the film’s success in replicating On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but it’s a high bar to aim for, and there’s a lot to be said for the reading of the film as a reimagining with a twist. Where No Time To Die’s similarities and subversions are largely superficial, Tracy’s DNA is baked into Elektra from her parentage and initial irritation at Bond’s over-protectiveness, right down to the similarities in her wardrobe, especially in her lacy dresses and the fur outfit she wears on the ski slopes.

And this isn’t for nothing, but On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is also where we learned that Bond’s family motto is “orbis non sufficit” – the world is not enough.

There’s precious little of George Lazenby’s dizzying Louis Armstrong-soundtracked courtship in the romance between Bond and Elektra, but nevertheless, this picks up a trend of angst in Brosnan’s 007 that we previously glimpsed in GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies. As in the quote that opens this feature, his job allows little recourse for personal connection, whether because some version of Tracy in this very modern Bond’s past or because of this incarnation having messily ended things with ex-lover Paris Carver or, heck, even best buddy Alec Trevelyan.

But ever so subtly, the Bond villain of it all is mixed in with Elektra too. Having her earlobes cut off while in captivity immediately plays to the overall picture of victimhood she uses as her cover and doesn’t immediately remind you that Terry Savalas’ Blofeld doesn’t have earlobes either. Plus, problematic as it may be, we’ve come to expect that such disfigurations are features of the villain, not the love interest.

Bond’s first explanation, as it was for Hearst in real life, is that she must have experienced Stockholm syndrome. Elektra is outraged by this, slapping Bond across the chops, and dressing him down for his sexism. As it turns out later, she’s not indignant at the idea she could ever fall for Renard, but that he hasn’t figured out she’s too smart to be the patsy.

(Incidentally, Jess Hill’s 2019 book “See What You Made Me Do” neatly discredits Stockholm syndrome as a contrivance by a police psychiatrist making assumptions about a female hostage who was critical of the police. Retrospectively, it fits the subversion of both Bond and Elektra to have 007 be the one who gives the armchair diagnosis.)

The villainous scheme is hers, not Renard’s, but there are shades of the Bond archetype in Elektra as well. Having realised her father’s refusal to pay a ransom (and later discovered this was on M’s advice), she escaped captivity by doing what Bond has historically done in these situations – used her sexuality to turn someone and then killed everybody else.

And instead of “We Have All The Time In The World”, the theme song is the first of two bangers from composer David Arnold. Performed by Bond megafan Shirley Manson and Garbage, the opening title song foreshadows Elektra’s seduction of men, Bond included, and her ambitions. On the commentary for the film, Arnold describes the song as “a steel fist in a velvet glove”, and you can’t say fairer than that.

Renard’s bag is more of a henchman thing anyway, with an injury that makes him gain strength and durability every day in much the way bullets to the head don’t. Seemingly, Elektra has the irresistible sexual magnetism of a 1980s Roger Moore with a 20-something-year-old woman. And that’s even before how ruthless and intelligent she is. By all rights, Bond should be doomed. (M’s reminder that “shadows stay in front or behind – never on top” is a good line.)

Of course, all of this leaves Bond to compartmentalise his feelings and do what he does. At one point in the film, he tells an unarmed Renard that “cold-blooded murder is a filthy business”, which makes his execution of Elektra during the third act all the more striking.

The prevailing idea that Brosnan’s Bond enjoys being 007 is double-edged, and there’s an interesting progression through how he kills each of his main adversaries up to this one – it’s hardly flat-out gleeful, but there’s an anger and contempt towards his enemies that’s quite rare in a cooler and calmer Bond.

Like many villains before her, Elektra is outlived by the henchman so Bond has a sparring partner for the climactic scrap. The kill itself is immediately followed by a great quip (“You couldn’t kill me, you’d miss me.” […] “I never miss.”) and a reaction almost like Lazenby leaning over Diana Rigg’s body in a more devastating scene, but neither undercuts the severity of the moment. And hey, equal opportunities for the series’ first female arch-villain to get killed by James Bond just the same.

Reflecting on the role in 2007 to MI6 HQ, Marceau observed: “There is a real love story between her and James Bond; they’re two human beings except they are on opposite sides. My part has a real story.”

Like the women in the previous two films, Elektra is conversant with the tropes of the series, but here relies on them to get her own way. Altogether, she’s one of the series’ most complex and enigmatic villains, never mind the female characters. She even memorably anticipates the torture scenes of the 21st-century Bond films by strapping him into a chair that seems designed to showcase Brosnan’s gift for screen grunting (matched only by his impeccable running).

But as mentioned, The World Is Not Enough is a tale of two Bond women and there’s an equal and opposite reaction within the film itself.

Also on Film Stories:
James Bond at 60 – where does 007 go from here?
No Time To Die, one year on – a James Bond finale
James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon
Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond
Quantum Of Solace – revisiting Daniel Craig’s difficult second James Bond film
Casino Royale, and the art of disarming and reloading James Bond
Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy
Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond film ahead of its time?
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
The Living Daylights, and what Timothy Dalton brings to James Bond
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Spy Who Loved Me – celebrating James Bond’s workplace romantic comedy
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Live And Let Die and the making of Roger Moore’s James Bond
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond 
You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody
Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake
Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen

Camp as Christmas

“Are you here for a reason? Or are you just hoping for a glimmer?”

Elektra was the working title for Purvis and Wade’s early drafts before they settled on The World Is Not Enough. But by all accounts, it was the uncredited contributions of Dana Stevens, City Of Angels screenwriter and Apted’s wife, that fleshed out both Elektra and M, who’s put right alongside Bond as the villain hoodwinks MI6 into abetting her scheme.

Still, Brosnan felt that Stevens’ draft side-lined Bond, and at his request, returning screenwriter Bruce Feirstein was brought in to zhuzh things up for him a bit, building on what was there but bringing 007 more to the foreground.

We’re not here to adjudicate who’s to blame for some of the franchise-low jokes here, including the hall-of-shame awful pun that closes the movie, but all I’ll say is that Feirstein wrote the following exchange, which was filmed but cut by Broccoli when she saw it in the rushes:

M: “Contrary to what you believe, 007, the world isn’t populated by madmen who can hollow out a volcano, fill it with big-breasted women, and threaten the world with nuclear annihilation.”

Bond: “It only takes one.”

MGM/UA requested some concessions on the film’s other female lead. As first written by Purvis and Wade, Christmas Jones was a French insurance investigator looking into the attacks on King Industries, but the studio had just greenlit the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, which stars Brosnan opposite Rene Russo as a character in the same profession.

Originally named after Christmas Humphries, a key player in the court case that inspired Let Him Have It, the character cycled through occupations in subsequent drafts, first to a bounty hunter, then a nuclear physicist, then a walking joke. Stevens reportedly tried to firm up Dr Jones’ believability as a scientist, whereas later drafts gave us *that* final punchline.

Without reading anything else around her, Christmas is portrayed as a character with agency and spark, seeing through Bond’s cover when she first meets him partly because she’s on her guard all the time with male colleagues who reduce her to “glimmer” while she does the serious work of decommissioning nuclear weapons at an ex-Russian base. And like Elektra, she has a first name she doesn’t like – you can’t do owt with a surname like “Onatopp” or “Goodhead” but nominative determinism is gonna affect your personality when your given name was seemingly given by idiots.

On the casting front, Vera Farmiga and Sharon Stone were considered to play Elektra, but when Apted fought to cast Marceau and won, the studio requested that Dr Jones be played by a young American star to broaden the film’s international and cross-generational appeal.

Heck, on paper, casting Denise Richards makes complete sense. Looking outside of Bond, she came to The World Is Not Enough off the back of Starship Troopers, Wild Things, and Drop Dead Gorgeous – a James Bond film was almost a natural progression for her after three roles that are so scorchingly satirical about the roles of women in their respective genres.

It’s not as if Richards was unaware that it’s another heightened role either – in a feature for the franchise’s 50th anniversary, she told USA Today: “There’s not too many scientists who run around in little shorts with a tattoo. So many people made fun of how I was dressed when the movie came out. That’s part of the appeal of Bond.”

And yes, much of the criticism of Dr Christmas Jones fixates on her wardrobe (she’s obviously styled after Lara Croft from Tomb Raider as part of a pitch to younger audiences, but what else is she gonna wear in the desert?) and appearance. That’s fully an extension of the backlash to the casting, but let’s be entirely fair to Richards – unlike those other roles of hers I mentioned, it’s a difficult part to be good in.

As written, she’s inevitably a poor reflection of Natalya from GoldenEye, but still a far cry from the worst Bond woman. Never mind Elektra, even Christmas looks like Tracy next to the likes of Stacy “Can’t Hear A Blimp Slowly Sneaking Up On Her” Sutton or Mary “Hides In A Cupboard While Bond Gets His End Away” Goodnight. Because as those ever-so-catchy nicknames suggest, it’s almost always weak writing that makes a bad character, not a weak performance.

Elsewhere, there’s an all-too traditionalist bent to the other female characters as well. Right off the bat, the film plonks Samantha Bond’s Moneypenny back in unrequited admin (“Close but no cigar” is a great gag that should have been hers to deliver). MI6 physiotherapist Dr Molly Warmflash (Serena Scott Thomas) has a way worse name than Dr Christmas Jones and appears only for an unwarranted Thunderball throwback early on. Even before that, there’s “Cigar Girl” (Maria Grazia Cucinotta) in the pre-title sequence – author Raymond Benson calls her Giulietta da Vinci, but she doesn’t even have a real name in the film’s closing credits.

As we’ll discuss when it comes to some of the more glaring oversights of the Daniel Craig era, the chauvinism in these purportedly modern Bond films deserves as much flak as any of the older films. In many regards, the franchise is acting its age in The World Is Not Enough, building on the modernisation of Bond women in the previous outings and thinking ahead not just to a new decade but a new century; a new millennium, even.

But a wise man said there’s no point being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes, and the immaturity wins out in this. With no common-sense pun control in evidence, there are definite ups and downs here, but it’s a rough one-two punchline that gives us “I thought Christmas only comes once a year” so soon after whatever the fuck John Cleese’s substitute-teacher Q is on about with that instantly dated Millennium Bug gag.

That’s the most open sign of any millennium anxiety on Eon’s part, but like every time Bond strays from formula, there’s a sense of it dragging its feet. What comes out of that push-and-pull is a layered yet undemanding action thriller that combines high drama with the sense of humour of a 12-year-old. Many would argue that’s ideal for Bond, but the film’s reputation speaks to how the campiness of it all overpowers the interesting bits.

The franchise’s old dirty habits may keep it from fully shaking off the formula in its representation at women, but looking at it altogether, it’s got some really memorable action, a lot of great dramatic scenes, and Elektra is superb enough to excuse a lot of its more Christmassy humbuggery elsewhere. At worst, the film is the optimal combination of Brosnan’s take on Bond, characterful women, bonkers geo-political scheming, and saw-wielding helicopter bastards.

Whether you think this is a dud or a hidden gem of the Brosnan era, The World Is Not Enough was another big success with critics and audiences. It cracked the worldwide box office top 10 for 1999, (and what a year for movies!) The film also had a bumper opening weekend that November, though it was comfortably outstripped at the US box office by Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me's blockbusting summer release – and that’s a problem for Another Day (… Die Another Day).

The World Is Not Enough is screening in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide from Friday 19th August. UK readers can also watch it on ITV1 on Saturday 20th August at 8:00 p.m.

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