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How women turned a mainly male movie genre on its head

Many are applauding the casting of a female as 007, but spy heroines are really having their moment, writes Tanya Sweeney

Lashana Lynch
Lashana Lynch

By Tanya Sweeney

Twenty-five films in and the Bond franchise still appears more than able to break the internet. Any murmurings about Bond films getting stale in their dotage were fully put paid to this week, when the producers of the spy series announced Daniel Craig's heir apparent. And it's a development, described as 'popcorn-dropping', that's likely to leave Bond purists a little shaken and stirred. In a good way, mainly.

According to insider rumblings, promising British actor Lashana Lynch has been cast as 007, who is based on a real-life British spy and hero. The character, called Nomi, is taking over the secret agent number that Bond has been famous for since 1953. Londoner Lynch has already enjoyed a huge career breakthrough earlier this year in Captain Marvel, but this latest casting announcement is sure to put her name on everyone's lips. A graduate of the ArtsEd drama school in London, Lynch has cut her teeth on Doctors, Silent Witness and The Bill before being handed her latest plum job.

The Daily Mail reported earlier this week that Daniel Craig is still very much reprising his role as Bond, but the 25th film will open with him, effectively retired in Jamaica, being called back into action for one last wheeze at fighting villains. But still, there's a definite sense of a mantle (Martini?) being passed on. Previously, Daniel Craig had said he'd rather 'slash his wrists' than return to playing James Bond. No doubt the producers' deep pockets lured him back into the fold and helped him rescind his statement, but it's unlikely that Craig will return for another outing.

The arrival of Lynch has been accredited in part to the arrival of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator of Fleabag and Killing Eve. The writer/actress has been drafted in to punch up the Bond script and bring new life to the series. Well, job done on that front.

"There's been a lot of talk about whether or not Bond is relevant now because of who he is and the way he treats women," Waller-Bridge is quoted as saying to the Daily Mail. "I think that's b*******. I think he's absolutely relevant now. "(The franchise) has just got to grow. It has just got to evolve, and the important thing is that the film treats the women properly. He doesn't have to. He needs to be true to his character."

Waller-Bridge has already been praised for ushering in a new era for the spy genre, and had already cast Sandra Oh - another Woman of Colour - to play M15 security operative Eve Polastri in the wildly acclaimed Killing Eve. And with the new wave of female TV writers getting to wield more power over the projects they get to green-light, it stands to reason that the female spy would rise in popularity too.

Not just rise in popularity, but also become more nuanced, exciting and multifaceted. With the exquisite three-hander of Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), M16 agent Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw) and assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer), Killing Eve is a stylish, whip-smart series that has broken down many spy tropes. The first clue that changes are afoot are in Villanelle's kickass and much-talked-about wardrobe, replete as it is with such fashion moments as cartoon pyjamas, a sharp patterned suit, and a puffy pink dress worn with combat boots. It's a move away from female spies of old, who looked ready to appeal to the male gaze.

Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh in Killing Eve
Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh in Killing Eve

What's more, Eve is certainly sexy, she's dogged and dedicated to her job, but she's also a... well, a bit scatty. She's prone to packing yeast infection cream in her luggage along with her various weapons of choice. She's in her 40s and bored in her safe marriage and an everywoman that's a thousand times more relatable than James Bond.

In fact, relatability is often central to the audience's enjoyment of the female spy. Homeland's CIA agent Carrie Matheson (played by Claire Danes) struggles with bipolar disorder and is fallible and flawed in many very human ways.

Likewise, there's Olivia Colman's heavily pregnant intelligence officer in The Night Manager, not to mention Florence Pugh's spirited actress-turned-spy Charlie in Little Drummer Girl, both distinct departures from the classic female spy as audiences have long seen them.

Historically, the female spy on-screen has been something of an unattainable ideal: sexy, multi-tasking, still able to get dinner on the table after a hard day's graft. And, like Melissa McCarthy's CIA analyst Susan Cooper in Spy or Charlize Theron's brutal agent in Atomic Blonde, she can weave chameleon-like through the world with an array of wigs and disguises and remain largely undetected.

This year has been a particularly plum year for the spy genre already and certainly for the female spy heroine. These women are at the centre of the action and aren't just on hand to help serve their male counterparts. Earlier this year, Red Joan was based on the remarkable real life story of Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) the KGB's longest serving British spy.

We've also seen Marion Cotillard in Allied, Andrea Riseborough in Shadow Dancer, Rebecca Ferguson in Despite the Falling Snow and Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow. The genre is set for an even bigger injection of wow factor now that Lupita Nyong'o, Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz and Marion Cotillard are now aboard Simon Kinberg's spy thriller 355.

This new rise of the female spy shows little sign of slowing down, not least with Lynch in the frame as 007. There are of course naysayers, a cohort of self-appointed cultural gatekeepers who appear to be massively triggered by Lynch's casting in the 007 franchise. "What a way to ruin something legendary," Tweeted one user. Another chimed in: "What's next? Lara Croft played by Jason Statham?" Bond's fans are thought to be every bit as protective of the franchise as Doctor Who fans before them; many of them kicked up dust when the 13th Timelord was announced as a woman (Jodie Whittaker).

The fact that Lynch will play an agent with the number 007, and not James Bond himself, appears to be lost on many of them. And some might even recall that when Daniel Craig was cast 14 years ago, many wrung their hands over Bond being a blonde man. But still, most fans agree that Lynch's arrival into the franchise is not before time. And seeing Lara Croft played by Jason Statham would certainly liven things up, and probably for the better.

Daniel Craig as James Bond
Daniel Craig as James Bond

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