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The Alternative Craig’s List: Daniel’s Top 10 Non-Bond Performances

By Martin Keady · October 28, 2015

In the run-up to the release of Spectre, there has been great speculation that Daniel Craig – who is generally regarded as the best Bond since the original, Sir Sean Connery himself – may be making his last appearance as Bond and will soon be handing in his “007” vanity plates. (Bond is such an un-secretive secret agent that he may as well have “007” vanity plates.) 

If Craig has made his final appearance as Bond, there will be huge interest in who will succeed him (with most of the money on Henry “Man of Steel/Man from UNCLE” Cavill), but what will be even more interesting is what Craig himself will do next.  One of the many reasons why he is regarded as the best Bond since Connery (besides possessing the sense of menace that is essential for the role, and which the likes of Moore and Dalton conspicuously lacked) is that he has always been a superb screen actor, capable of playing roles other than Bond. Just as Connery excelled in non-Bond films such as The Hill and The Offence, so Craig has demonstrated his enormous versatility in films as far removed from the world of 007 as Love Is The Devil and The Mother

Here, then, is the alternative Craig’s List: Daniel’s Top 10 non-Bond performances.

10.  ROAD TO PERDITION (2002, Directed by Sam Mendes, Written by David Self, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Max Allan Collins)

The road to Skyfall, arguably the best Bond film ever made (yes, including the early Connery classics), began with Road To Perdition 10 years before, when Sam Mendes, the director of both Skyfall, hired Craig to play the disaffected, even unstable son of Depression-era mob boss Paul Newman, who is jealous of his father’s adoration of his trusted enforcer, Tom Hanks. It is Craig’s instability that sets the whole plot in motion, when he loses his temper and kills an associate of his father, forcing Hanks to kill the associate’s henchmen, thus driving both men into hiding.

Craig spends much of the movie off-screen as Hanks, the star, makes his own physical and spiritual journey to the (almost mythical) Michigan town of Perdition. But when he is on screen, Craig has undeniable presence. His physical and verbal ticks communicate both his jealousy of and sense of inferiority to Hanks, who he knows is the man his father really regards as a son.

9.  INFAMOUS (2006, Written and Directed by Douglas McGrath, Based on Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, by George Plimpton)

As this list shows, Craig is a versatile actor, but his forté remains the cold-blooded killer, be that James Bond or one of the ultimate cold-blooded killers, Perry Smith.  Along with Richard Hickock, Smith is the anti-hero of Truman Capote’s “non-fiction novel”, In Cold Blood, the book that sealed Capote’s reputation as a writer but only at enormous personal cost, as he himself became embroiled in the long drawn-out legal proceedings that eventually led to Smith and Hickock’s executions.

Infamous is often unfairly regarded as “the other Truman Capote movie”, as Capote, released the year before, secured the Best Actor Oscar for Philip Seymour Hoffman.  But Toby Jones is arguably an even better Capote than Seymour Hoffman, not least because of his uncanny physical similarity to the great (if little) man, and Daniel Craig is certainly a more memorable killer than either of the killers in Capote.  Indeed, it is Capote’s relationship with Smith that is at the heart of Infamous, culminating in Capote’s astonishment at discovering that Smith, who at times has threatened him (even sexually), has ultimately bequeathed him his few worldly belongings.  It is at that point that the loneliness of both men—world-famous author and his subject—is most powerfully laid bare.

8.  MUNICH (2005, Directed by Steven Spielberg, Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, Based on Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by George Jonas)

In Munich, Craig plays a spy who is utterly different to James Bond. For one thing, he is not originally a spy at all, but a driver, who is one of several Jewish volunteers from around the world who are co-opted by Mossad to carry out revenge attacks on the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the 1972 Olympic massacre. Slowly, however, Craig’s character, Steve, is initiated into the amoral world of state-sanctioned slaughter, a world that has far more in common with the books of John le Carré than those of Ian Fleming.

Munich was the last film Craig made before his first appearance as Bond in Casino Royale (2006), and the differences between the two performances are fascinating.  It is not only that Craig plays an initially amateurish spy in Munich but that he is only one of a powerful ensemble of actors, rather than the “star” he would become as Bond.  Indeed, such is Craig’s essential unselfishness as an actor that he may be more at ease as one of an ensemble than as the leading man, and it may be a desire to undertake such roles in the future that is behind his ambivalence to continue playing Bond beyond Spectre.

7.  FLASHBACKS OF A FOOL (2008, Written and Directed by Baillie Walsh)

Perhaps Craig was attracted to Flashbacks of a Fool because it gave him a vision of what his life might have been like if he had not become Bond.  The “fool” in question is Joe Scott, a has-been actor who is jolted out of his numbing routine of drinking and drugging by the death of a childhood friend, whose funeral he returns to Britain to attend, in the process re-examining his past and in particular the incident that had had led him to flee from his home town.

Craig is rather wonderful as a washed-up semi-celebrity who is brought firmly back down to earth by returning to the no-bullshit-land of Great Britain.  And the gradual revelation of the tragedy that haunts him stands in stark contrast to all of Bond’s one-night stands.  Here, the actual consequences of loveless sex are sensitively considered, as Craig is shown to have thrown away a chance of genuine love with his childhood sweetheart because of a stupid, senseless infatuation with an older woman. 

6.  DEFIANCE (2008, Directed by Edward Zwick, Written by Edward Zwick and Clayton Frohman, Based on Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec)

It is fascinating that two of Craig’s best non-Bond roles, in Munich and in Defiance, are as Jewish characters, even though he is not Jewish himself.  Perhaps his family’s supposed ancestral links to the French Protestant Huguenots, who themselves fled counter-reformation France to escape Catholic pogroms, gave him an insight into the lot of the ultimate exiles, the Jews.  Or, more likely, it is just his enormous emotional intelligence as an actor.

In Defiance, Craig plays one of four brothers who escape the Nazi round-ups of Jews in occupied Poland and hide out in the huge and largely unexplored Naliboki forest.  In a kind of modern-day retelling of the Robin Hood story, the brothers form a resistance group with other Jews and take the battle back to the Nazis. 

As in Munich, although Craig is ostensibly the leading man and the leader of the partisans, he obviously enjoys being one of the “gang”, as he both confides in and spars with his three brothers, played by Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay.  Indeed, the brothers eventually part, splitting into rival factions, before being reunited when the Nazis launch a devastating attack on the forest and they have to work together to defeat them. 

5.  LAYER CAKE (2004, Directed by Matthew Vaughn, Written by J. J. Connolly from his novel of the same name)

The list of great British gangster films is not a long one: the only absolutely unquestionable entries are Get Carter, The Long Good Friday and Sexy BeastLayer Cake may not be as substantial as those masterpieces, but it is at times deliciously rich.  The title supposedly refers to the life of easy, safe luxury that gangsters like Craig’s “XXXX” (a pseudonym even more mysterious than “007”, as his real name is never revealed) dream of living, but in reality it is a metaphor for the dense and complex plot of the movie, which involves the theft and counter-theft of a huge consignment of ecstasy tablets.

Layer Cake was probably the film that first put Craig in the frame to be considered as Bond, because it was his first real starring role.  However, for another of its stars, it serves as a cautionary tale.  Sienna Miller played Tammy, the ultimate object of XXXX’s desire, and so downright sexy was her performance (as a kind of modern-day Britt Ekland, who was the audience for Michael Caine’s phone-sex fantasies in Get Carter) that she, not a pre-Bond Craig, dominated many of the movie’s original posters.  But whereas Craig went on from Layer Cake to become James Bond, Miller, like most screen actresses (even the best of them), has never been given a similar chance to display her obvious acting ability. 

4.  LOVE IS THE DEVIL (1998, Written and Directed by John Maybury)

Apart from having one of the greatest titles of any film ever made (anyone who has truly loved knows that real love is at least as devilish as it is heavenly), Love is the Devil is one of the finest films about an artist ever made, and in particular one of the most profound examinations of the base human desires that can inspire the greatest human artistry.

In Love is the Devil, a young Craig plays the petty thief, George Dyer, who literally stumbles upon the great Francis Bacon when he attempts to burgle his Soho flat.  What ensues is one of the unlikeliest “artist-muse” relationships, as Bacon (beautifully brought to life by Derek Jacobi, in what must rank as his last great screen performance) introduces Dyer to the world of high art and high life, while Dyer’s roughness, even callousness (again, memorably brought to life by Craig, in a performance that matches that of his much older and more experienced co-star), exerts a compelling hold on Bacon. 

3.  THE MOTHER (2003, Directed by Roger Michell and Written by Hanif Kureishi)

In an interview with London’s Time Out to promote the release of Spectre (as if it needed promoting), Craig memorably told the interviewer, “Bond still wants to have sex.  He wants to fuck anything with a pulse.”  Ironically, in saying that Craig may have unwittingly identified the similarity between his most famous role, as Bond, and his other non-Bond roles, because the fact is that in so many of his movies (including Love is the Devil, Infamous and, most famously, The Mother) Craig plays characters who will literally “fuck anything with a pulse”, from a great artist such as Francis Bacon to a dowdy, almost depressed elderly woman in The Mother.

It is a testament to both Craig’s enormous sex appeal and even greater acting ability that he manages to make such unlikely, indeed almost unbelievable, relationships entirely plausible.  In The Mother, he plays a handyman who has an affair with his girlfriend’s much older mother, with predictably disastrous consequences.  Again, it is a reminder of the basic acting ability that Craig shares with the other great Bond, Connery, and which sets them both apart from the likes of Roger Moore and Pearce Brosnan (the great camp Bonds).  One can imagine a young Connery playing a similarly provocative role (indeed, he played an even more provocative role in Sidney Lumet’s The Offence, as a police officer who ends up killing a child molester), but the thought of Moore or Brosnan seducing an elderly woman is just risible (even if Moore would have been almost the same age as the woman).

2.  ENDURING LOVE (2004, Directed by Roger Michell, Written by Joe Penhall and Ian McEwan, from McEwan’s novel of the same name)

To the list of Craig’s unlikely conquests (genius artist, elderly woman) can be added the character played by Rhys Ifans in Enduring Love, a troubled young man who becomes completely obsessed with Craig’s older professor.  However, this “conquest” is completely unsought after, as Craig is effectively stalked by Ifans after they have both unsuccessfully attempted to stop a runaway hot-air balloon from dragging another man to his death, in an extraordinary opening sequence that bears comparison with the finest of the silent era.

In Enduring Love, as in several of his finest non-Bond roles (for example, Road to Perdition and The Mother), Craig is the hunted, not the hunter, as Ifans’ character, Jed, eventually pursues him to the point of madness.  Unlike in Love is the Devil, however, the homosexual relationship in Enduring Love is ultimately unconsummated, but it is no less powerful for that.  Craig convincingly plays a man whose world falls apart around him.  Indeed, he finally realises that he, too, is effectively tethered to that hot-air balloon as it rises and must decide whether to hang on or jump off.  Either way, he risks losing his life.

1. OUR FRIENDS IN THE NORTH (1996 TV Series, Written by Peter Flannery, Directed by Simon Cellan Jones, Pedr James and Stuart Urban)

If you can see only one non-Bond performance by Craig, it must be this one, as “Geordie” Peacock in the seminal BBC series, Our Friends in the North, based on Peter Flannery’s stage play of the same name.  As “Geordie”, Craig is one of an alternative “Fab Four”: four childhood friends who thrive or just survive in post-WWII Britain, with each hour-long episode taking place in, or around, the year of a general election, from Harold Wilson’s surprise win for Labour in 1964 right up to 1996, just before Tony Blair led his much-vaunted “new Labour” to an election victory that ended another decade or more of Tory misrule. 

Often described as “the British Heimat”, Our Friends in the North is undoubtedly one of the finest, if not the finest, British television dramas ever made, and as such it is both a travesty and a tragedy that it has remained largely unseen since its original broadcast (it has never been repeated on British terrestrial TV), supposedly because of some labyrinthine “rights” issue, which really should be resolved for the benefit of TV viewers everywhere.

As “Geordie”, Craig is absolutely unrecognisable from the man who would become Bond a decade later.  “Geordie” is the black sheep of this “framily” (family of friends), who sees his childhood dreams disappear and eventually becomes homeless.  And yet there are also points of comparison with Bond, especially when Geordie attempts to take revenge on the crime boss (creepily and cruelly played by Malcolm McDowell, in probably his best screen performance since If and Clockwork Orange) who has used him and then abandoned him.  In the episode where Geordie follows him around London and eventually tries to kill him, the seeds of Craig’s brilliant but merciless Bond were surely sewn.

FROM OUR FRIENDS IN THE NORTH TO BOND – AND BEYOND

It is often said that the true mark of an actor is their range: their ability to play vastly differing parts.  Put simply, the greater the range, the greater the actor.  By that measure, Daniel Craig is one of the greatest screen actors of the last two decades, because it is almost impossible to imagine two more vastly different roles than that of James Bond and “Geordie” in Our Friends in the North.  If, as Craig himself has suggested, Spectre is his swansong as Bond, what is absolutely enticing is the possibility of his playing even more wildly varying roles in the future, and absolutely nailing them, like the cold-eyed killer he has played in both the Bond movies and Our Friends in the North