Bond Girl: Re-Watching and Re-Evaluating GoldenEye
Original illustration by Emilie Majarian for The Mary Sue.
Welcome to Bond Girl, a new series where we’ll be re-watching and re-evaluating every James Bond film until Spectre’s release. Check out previous entries here.
Content warnings for sexual harassment, forced kisses, and general consent issues related to Xenia’s sadism.
GoldenEye has it all: a fresh and charming James Bond actor, a Bond Girl who bends under pressure but doesn’t break at all before saving the day, a villain whose face you want to smack, and henchmen—henchpeople, I should say—that make the villain’s plot a bit easy to bear.
GoldenEye is the seventeenth film in Eon Production’s James Bond franchise and my personal favorite of Brosnan’s time as Bond—and probably out of the entire franchise while we’re at it.
GoldenEye takes absolutely nothing from Fleming’s works outside of character names, but does take its name and main weapon from Fleming’s Jamaican estate. This is the first Bond made after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1995, and so that’s a significant part of the film’s background. The plot of GoldenEye centers around Bond’s fight to prevent the Janus arms syndicate (led by Sean Bean’s former 006/Alec Trevelyan) from unleashing the GoldenEye satellite weapon on London in an act of revenge.
From the moment the new gun barrel sequence comes up with new music and of course, our new James Bond striding onto the screen, you can’t help but get excited. I know I couldn’t help it. I’ve seen GoldenEye dozens of times, and I never get tired of watching that very first instance of Brosnan coming onscreen and firing one-handed at the camera. Couple that with the new take on Bond’s signature theme music in the opening this time around, and I always just start out the film ready to punch everyone.
And trust me, that’s a good reaction on my part.
Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond has always felt like a middle ground when it comes to the longer lasting Bonds. He has many of the characteristics that make them interesting and enough of their bad qualities to keep him as realistic as a male power fantasy can actually be. He’s charming the way that Connery’s Bond was, but he isn’t smarmy or sleazy. Sometimes, he’s actually a little bit too normal—a little boring—one of the things I was definitely thinking about Moore’s films in the franchise. I also like the way that the producers tempered the darkness that seemed too overdone for Dalton and made it fit with the character.
GoldenEye is one of the Bond films that humanizes the character. We tend to learn about Bond in little sips spread out across multiple films, and they aren’t always consistent in that canon. What we learn in one film about him might not be true of him in the one right after it. With GoldenEye, you have some more of these moments, and I feel as if it’s carried over through the rest of his run. I’ve always felt as if effort was made to make sense of Bond and start setting up an actual backstory to make him feel a bit more like a real person than a specter of international intrigue.
Out of all of the actors that’ve played James Bond, Pierce Brosnan is the one that I tend to think of more as the sensitive badass. He’s quick in a fight, a heavy hitter, and a good shot, but there’s something about his portrayal of Bond that has always put me in mind of soap opera heroes while watching his films.
Much of James Bond’s humanization happens in relation to Alec Trevelyan. Trevelyan is a 00, 006 to be exact, and he works well with Bond. The film implies that they are not only peers, but that they are also think of one another as friends, maybe even growing up together underneath MI6’s watchful eye. At the start of the film during the pre-credit scene, Bond and Trevelyan are on a mission in pre-dissolution USSR and you get a good glimpse of their dynamic that kind of sets the tone for later events.
Trevelyan and Bond have the best witty banter between them and you absolutely get the feeling that they’re close and that their closeness has only a small amount to do with their job. Look at this dialogue from the pre-credits scene:
Alec Trevelyan: You’re late, 007.
James Bond: I had to stop in the bathroom.
Alec Trevelyan: Ready to save the world again?
James Bond: After you, 006.
They’re just so chill, so comfortable together. This is a joking moment in what winds up being a surprisingly somber pre-credits scene. Moments later, once they’re actually setting the charges for their mission, Trevelyan is seemingly taken hostage by General Ourumov, and as Bond watches, a countdown for Trevelyan’s life begins.
Unfortunately, Ourumov shoots just as Bond approaches, sending Trevelyan to the floor.
The look on Bond’s face when his friend and partner is killed is staggering, both for him and the viewer. We’ve seen other 00s killed on-screen before, but this is the first one that we know to be friends with Bond instead of just a partner.
That’s what makes our great big villainous reveal so shocking later on in the film. This pivotal scene takes place in a junk yard filled with statues that seem to be of former communist heroes. (It’s a direct tie in to the film’s background of post-dissolution Russia and the way that the opening credits has, in addition to the usual frolicking young women, images of communist iconography being broken down and taken apart.)
As Bond walks through the junk yard, he hears a noise and suddenly there’s Alec Trevelyan. Trevelyan is older now and has a massive set of scars covering the right side of his face. It’s a shock to Bond who freezes when faced with his old friend.
Trevelyan gives Bond no quarter, calling him out and even insulting him by calling him “Her Majesty’s loyal terrier” as they stand together in the dark. Obviously, Trevelyan takes Bond’s appearance here very personally and Bond’s realization of his friend’s betrayal cuts deep. At the heart of this film, a major recurring theme is that of betrayal.
Alec Trevelyan betrays Bond (and MI6) while his own feelings of betrayal drive him. Of course. He has the requisite tragic backstory (the death of his parents at his father’s hand in what Trevelyan sees is a direct relation to British betrayal of the Lienz Cossacks to the Russians after World War II.)
Following the dramatic reveal that Trevelyan is in fact alive and well, James Bond feels betrayed because his close friend not only faked his death, but also has decided to betray the country that they grew up in. It’s such a mess.
Add to that how Trevelyan is certainly dealing with jealousy of Bond and you’ve got this tangled web of emotions and everyone’s inability to communicate before going off to enact their massive plans for revenge.
Seriously, there’s a point where Trevelyan sneers at Bond about finding forgiveness in the arms of willing women “for all the ones you’ve failed to protect.” I feel like it’s an especially cutting dig, because Trevelyan most certainly would’ve known about Bond’s wife, so this perhaps is a way that we’re getting an oblique reference to James Bond’s dead wife, Tracy.
Either way, Trevelyan isn’t playing fair.
Now, I know I kind of seem like I’m framing Trevelyan as a somewhat sympathetic villain by talking about his relationship with Bond. I noticed it as I did my notes for this recap as well as while writing and it’s weird because I don’t want to even have one positive thought about Trevelyan because I’ve had issues with Sean Bean for as far back as I can remember.
Alec Trevelyan is actually not a terrible villain. I don’t like him, but that’s because he’s incredibly sleazy. On top of wanting revenge against the British for his parents’ deaths (something I don’t agree with since it’s a technicality of the highest order), Trevelyan also seems to want to take revenge against Bond. Blaming Bond for the scars on his face, Trevelyan makes a point of trying to steal everything from Bond—including our Bond Girl and Bond’s ally Natalya Simonova.
Now I’m going to talk about a scene that made me uncomfortable and definitely helped me decide how I felt about Trevelyan. It’s a scene that puts Natalya on a train with three out of four of our film’s bad guys. Stuck in a room with Trevelyan and his sadistic henchwoman Xenia, Natalya is penned into a corner when Trevelyan starts making advances.
It’s so uncomfortable to watch and recount but seriously, get a load of this:
Alec Trevelyan: You know, James and I shared everything. Absolutely everything… [Trevelyan pulls back Natalya’s hair from her face.] To the victor go the spoils.
And of course in this scenario, Natalya comes along with the territory. She’s a trophy for Trevelyan to win—or, if he can’t win her over willingly, she’s an object for him to take. He’s so busy trying to best Bond and perhaps win an award for creepiest scene in the history of creepy scenes. It’s a trip. He kisses Natalya multiple times without permission and he doesn’t care that she’s so very obviously NOT OKAY with what he’s doing to the point where she winds up slapping him square across the face.
I think that that’s the part that definitely made me go “okay, I’m done with Trevelyan” because there’s no erasing it. There’s no ignoring the fact that he was touching Natalya without her permission or that it’s implied that he would’ve gone farther if not for her slap and Bond’s following interruption.
I can only say ‘Ew’ so many times before it stops feeling like a real word and I think I hit that point ages ago with this.
I was actually so happy when he died. Part of that was because of the aforementioned scene and the whole thing where his tragic backstory just didn’t make enough sense for me to excuse away anything that. But I’m going to be honest, part of the reason why his death was so darn satisfying to me was because of how it gave Bond closure.
A running back and forth between Trevelyan and Bond at the start of the film had them saying “For England,” to one another before diving into the mission. At the end, when Bond has Trevelyan dangling from the top of a massive satellite, Trevelyan brings it back.
“For England, James? Trevelyan asks.
Bond replies with an icy “No. For me.”
And then he drops Trevelyan off the satellite and to his death.
I have to admit, it was a really satisfying death scene.
Now, let’s talk about the ladies!
First, I’d like to start with the new faces in MI6. Both Moneypenny and M are new for this franchise with Samantha Bond playing the former and Dame Judi Dench playing the latter.
Samantha Bond is excellent in her role as Moneypenny. She’s definitely the straight man to Bond’s antics and it’s so good to see. Where previous Moneypenny portrayals have the character pining after Bond in order to inject hilarity into the MI6 scenes, this Moneypenny is so cool. She doesn’t flirt with Bond so much as he flirts with her and there’s a definite air that he’s the one panting after her.
It’s a nice change considering how often Moneypenny’s attraction to Bond and their office flirtations gets turned into a huge joke. Sure, she isn’t guaranteed to have this characterization every single film that she’s in, but for the first film with Samantha Bond in the role, it’s very good to see. She’s still lovely and funny but she’s definitely in charge.
Moneypenny: I was on a date, if you must know, with a gentleman. We went to the theater together. [She presses a few buttons.]
James Bond: Moneypenny, I’m devastated. What would I ever do without you?
Moneypenny: As far as I can remember, James, you’ve never had me.
Excuse me, but I’m a little bit in love.
Now, here’s the thing about Dame Judi Dench as M: she’s the only M I’ve ever truly loved. Her M is grouchy and mean and she takes no crap from any of the people working under her. Her M does what she must for the good of queen and country, even if that means sacrificing a few of her most skilled agents.
M in GoldenEye is a force to be reckoned with.
One of her subordinates has the gall to insult her by calling her “the Evil Queen of Numbers” when he doesn’t realize that she’s right behind him. The look that she gives him is withering. Her words after? Cut him down to size in a matter of moments.
I love Lady M because she’s mean. I love her because she’s this gruff older woman and that the focus isn’t on her soft center.
Even with James Bond, who she comes to feel serious affection for, she still calls him out on his crap. She calls everyone out on their crap and it is glorious. Normally, I hate when films that previously eschewed reality dump a ton of “the workforce is sexist” on us but it works in this film. It works with M because we’re looking at MI6 where for most films, the only women in the background were delivering coffee or papers, and now she’s on top. Of course she has to battle back against old-fashioned sexist crap.
The boys’ club of MI6 seriously became a better place thanks to Lady M and her willingness to look Bond straight in the face and call him a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur”.
How amazing is that? Who hasn’t looked at a James Bond film (especially the older ones) and wondered why they were so darn misogynistic all the time or why Bond in particular was just super antiquated in the weirdest ways?
And she smirks.
Next we have our secondary big-bad: Xenia Onatopp.
Played by Famke Janssen in one of her earlier roles, Xenia is the sort of bad guy that gives other bad guys nightmares. She’s gorgeous, but also scary as hell because she’s a sadistic femme fatale with no limits. Despite my discomfort with her well… everything, I tend to put Xenia super high on my list of henchmen, right underneath May Day. Why? Because she manages to be scarier than the main villain is and she looks good while doing it.
When I say that Xenia is a sadist, I’m not making stuff up. She’s literally turned on by inflicting pain on other people and yes, even killing them. The film shows her seducing an admiral shortly after her second appearance and it’s very kinky but consensual at first. She claws and bites at his skin and he seems to be enjoying all of it –
Right up until Xenia starts squeezing him so hard that she snaps his spine. I didn’t even know that you could do that to a person but you know what, I’m just going to roll with it.
Xenia’s predilections for painful sex and seduction that tends to end in murder are pretty weird. We don’t get much backstory on her, nothing to explain why nothing gets her hotter than hurting someone else. I’m actually unsure if I even want to see what that backstory would look like.
I do have a major issue with Xenia and it’s actually tied up in her sadism.
I’m assuming, that the sex in her scene with the admiral stops being consensual at some point. Or maybe it doesn’t because the second he expresses his discomfort and inability to breathe, she kills him. It’s very confusing because on one hand, I do want to celebrate Xenia being a sexually free character that’s also comfortable with killing (because female villains have a tendency of being rehabilitated in these films). At the same time though, there’s definitely something going on with the kinky sex that’s a little bit too kinky.
Part of what Xenia is getting off on when she hurts someone, is that they don’t want to be in the position that they’re in. We can see that in both of her fight scenes with Bond—the one in the sauna and then the one in Cuba that leads to her death. Both scenes show Bond pushing her away and trying to get away and the more that he tries to get away, the more she gets excited and tries to get at him.
I’m unsure how we’re supposed to read this because I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t make excuses for a male villain with the same fetish. I don’t think that Xenia being a lady excuses the behavior here. She is creepy. She is the sort of character that doesn’t respect boundaries. And let’s face it, there does seem to be a ton of consent issues inherent in her favorite method of killing.
After all, she’s turned killing into a sex act and she’s the only person happy to be there.
I like her as a villain because she’s so twisted and there’s nothing at all redeemable about her but the things that make her interesting also make me uncomfortable.
Lastly, our Bond Girl for this film is just really fantastic and I love her to pieces.
Played by Izabella Scorupco, Natalya Simonova kind of feels like a grown-up version of Kara Milovy in The Living Daylights before you get to the meat of her character. Initially, you think of her as naïve. She looks like an innocent due to how she’s wearing her work outfit for much of the movie and wandering around in shock for a good deal of her early appearance.
But behind those wide eyes is a core of steel.
Natalya is definitely more than she seems. Writing her off would be such a disservice because hey, it’s not like just anyone gets drafted to work in a secret facility like the one where the GoldenEye is kept in Severnaya. We’re not just told that Natalya is brilliant, we see it in how she hacks her former coworker’s computer. We see it in her takeover of the computer near the end of the film, locking it against her coworker-turned-henchman.
Natalya goes from a character that you might want to worry about to one that Bond couldn’t win without. She’s a hero in her own right and that’s glorious. She’s on her own mission of revenge and even though it’s not exactly framed as such, you can tell by the way that it drives her.
Not only does she have to watch and listen as her coworkers are gunned down on the orders of someone that’s supposed to be on their side, but she has to deal with her coworker Boris’ betrayal. Since this is a Bond film and not a Bond Girl film, we don’t get to see how directly how closely their narratives mirror each other, but trust me, it’s there.
Natalya is a survivor. More than that, she’s the sort of character whose survival doesn’t hinge on Bond. I know that I’ve complained about how many of these capable women appear to lose their skills when faced with James Bond, but Natalya isn’t one of them. Our first Bond Girl in the nineties gains from the change in production team and producers because they decided to make the Bond girl his equal and that’s fantastic.
In my fantastic and well-worn copy of Bond Girls, the book not only calls Natalya a “born survivor” in the section for GoldenEye, but it also refers to her as “a worthy trendsetter for Nineties Bond Girls”. And you know what? I agree 100%.
GoldenEye seriously is a fantastic film. The characters are interesting (even the ones I don’t like). The ladies are ground-breaking and capture your thoughts. And of course, James Bond is new and fresh, brought into the tail end of the 21st century with Pierce Brosnan in a role that he might have been born to play.
What I’m looking forward to:
In Tomorrow Never Dies we get two significant women: Teri Hatcher’s Paris and Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin. Now if you’ve seen Tomorrow Never Dies, you know that only one of these women survive to the end and it’s not the actress that’s played Lois Lane.
I’m looking forward to talking more about tragedy that hits the women that James Bond is intimate with and about how there’s a recurring theme of fridging that takes on a very frustrating note. It feels like women at times in the Bond franchise are punished for having sex with them and I’m so not here for that.
And of course, I’m here for Wai Lin who is another Bond Girl that stands opposite Bond as an equal (and as a fellow secret agent!!). She’s such a good character and I love that while she is beautiful, her appeal does lie in her skills as a spy and as a fighter.
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