Sword of Honour (review)

Daniel Craig: Elegantly Dangerous

For most moviegoers, their first glimpse of actor Daniel Craig will come when he assumes the mantle of Britain’s greatest secret agent, 007 James Bond in next month’s Casino Royale. But you’re smart: you remember him in Road to Perdition, as Paul Newman’s son, the vicious Irish-American mob soldier to his boss dad. Or no, wait: Wasn’t he the South African mercenary who helped Eric Bana with his state-sanctioned revenge in Munich? Or was he the slick unnamed London drug dealer in Layer Cake?
Yup, Craig was all those men — he disappears into a role like a chameleon even as he exudes an onscreen muscularity, both literal and figurative, that would seem to make it impossible, and if there’s one quality he will bring to Bond that the character hasn’t seen since Sean Connery (sorry, Tim and Pierce), it is a dangerous masculinity, a sexy menace. (Watch him bring that to the upcoming Infamous, as the killer Perry Smith, who inspired Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.) But that list of hard-case roles — mobster, mercenary, drug dealer — prompts a question: Can Craig pull off the elegant side of Bond?

The answer is yes, absolutely, as the 2001 British miniseries Sword of Honour shows off beautifully. Just out on DVD, it’s a must-see for Craig fans, a select cadre now, perhaps, but one sure to welcome many newcomers soon. Craig plays old-money scion Guy Crouchback in this smart, luscious adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s semiautobiographical story of the trials of one honest, moral man amidst the SNAFU milieu of Britain’s World War II military. Though he’s a bit old for the army, 35-year-old Guy is desperate to assert his sense of ethics by joining the fight against the Nazis and finally finds a spot in an elite unit… which, he discovers, is nothing but a corral for liars, cheats, criminals, nutters, and other assorted scoundrels and deficients. These are the best of the best, supposedly, and look at the state of them.

Sort of like a craftier, classier M*A*S*H — is there any way to approach modern war except as satire? — this is a wonder of sly humor, subtle performances, and intelligent, frustrated cynicism over how cherished concepts like honor and loyalty get more lip service than actual respect. Craig’s Guy is unlike any character I’ve seen him play before (granted that I haven’t seen all his work), a slightly befuddled man a step or two out of synch with the rest of the world, so well-meaning that he gets taken advantage of, as by his bombshell of an ex-wife, who collects and discards husbands for fun, when she reenters his life to make a walking mockery of his own rigorous morality. Craig’s not quite so dangerous here — though there are hints of it, like in one scene where his slightly deranged commanding officer invites Guy to shoot him, and Guy is sorely, and rightly, tempted. But he eases through Guy’s starchiness with a manly grace, turning a character who could have been a simple prig into a far more intriguing one: the odd man out who’s convinced himself — and convinces us — that he is the one sane man in a crazy world.

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