A lot of knowledge can be a dangerous thing when crafting a miniseries about the most famous spy novelist of all time.
That is one of the reasons that Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond, a four-part miniseries premiering at 10 p.m. Wednesday on BBC America, is only sporadically entertaining. Too much effort is made foreshadowing what Ian Fleming would achieve with the James Bond books, and too little effort is expended making a consistently interesting story about it.
Dominic Cooper (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) plays Fleming as the womanizing dilettante that he was before he was hired by British Naval Intelligence at the start of World War II.
Fleming is the also-ran of the family compared to his older brother Peter (Rupert Evans, World Without End), a successful author who has firsthand combat experience. Peter is also the favorite of his domineering, snobby mother (Lesley Manville, Theory of Everything).
Ian can’t cut a break, but doesn’t try very hard either. He’s recruited by Adm. John Godfrey (Samuel West, Mr. Selfridge) and given a title and a posh uniform. It’s all a big lark at first, but soon enough, Ian starts taking the job seriously, in part because it taps into his maverick sensibilities as well as his cleverness.
As the miniseries follows Fleming through the creation of a special Assault Brigade based in North Africa but overseen by Fleming from London, we are treated to a steady stream of subtle and not-so-subtle references to the real-life source material he would later use for the James Bond novels.
First and foremost, there is Lieutenant Monday (Anna Chancellor, The Hour), brilliant, detail-oriented, and an initial skeptic who becomes a key supporter of Fleming’s iconoclasm. She is Miss Moneypenny through and through.
Muriel Wright (Annabelle Wallis, The Tudors) is a beautiful young woman who gets to dress head-to-toe in tight-fitting brown leather in her job as a courier, but undresses quite nicely, and frequently, as Ian’s lover. She makes the mistake of falling in love with him and is the prototype for the Bond girls of Fleming’s later fiction.
Much of the miniseries is taken up with Fleming’s tempestuous affair with Lady Ann O’Neill (Lara Pulver, Sherlock), a cool beauty who toys with Fleming for quite a while before giving in to a physical relationship, despite the fact she’s already married (her husband is fighting in the war) and having an affair as well with Esmond Rotheremere (Pip Torrens, Pride and Prejudice), owner of the Daily Mail.
The miniseries is, in its own way, as stylized as a James Bond film, and biliously overwritten at times. It may be an attempt to replicate the artfully pulpy nature of Fleming’s work, but if so, it’s a mistake. It just adds to the overall credibility problems, which include the fact that this is the prettiest world war you’re ever likely to see depicted onscreen.
The other problem is that Ian Fleming is neither a very attractive nor a very interesting man here — self-deprecating cads rarely are. He smokes up a storm, slaps women, angrily fornicates with them, insults everyone he meets, and shows a flash of belated feeling only when he thinks he may have lost the love of his life. True, his mother is monstrous, but he’s so dislikable that even when he gets a routine dressing-down from dear old snobby judgmental mommy dearest, we don’t feel an ounce of sympathy for him.
Fleming has its moments, but they are too few and even farther between. The last of the four episodes is the best, but you have to slog through the other three to get there.