You wouldn’t necessarily think of Daniel Craig as someone who champions mental health awareness in his work. The actor is best known for being James Bond for the past fourteen years – a character with little depth beyond brooding and casually addressed alcoholism. Craig is, however, more than an action hero, and perhaps the freedom he now has from that franchise might allow him to return to the dramas he began his career with. He starred in numerous explorations of complex characters, bringing light to different mental health issues in a way significant enough to influence my own wellbeing.
My first encounter with his non-Bond work happened at least a decade ago when I stumbled upon Flashbacks of a Fool, a film that definitely drew me to it with the melancholy title. The melancholy persisted throughout the film, its focus being a washed-up, increasingly isolated actor forced to encounter the trauma of his past. I was struck by the tone, and with its mixture of hedonism and nostalgia, there was an unfortunate touch of romanticisation. More than that though, I was influenced by the sympathetic understanding of the link between our naive past and present – a compassion that stayed with me.
Of course, over the years to come, I largely forgot about that film. The last decade was not kind to me. After leaving university, I was largely bereft of personal and professional direction for half of it. It’s not an unfamiliar situation for a graduate to feel they lack a place in the world, over-qualified for some jobs and under-qualified for any that offer real advancement. My confidence had been ground away too, by academia and the isolation I found in the independence of university. Depression and anxiety that were largely alien to me beforehand simultaneously had become prominent features of my personality. Any opportunity for a pragmatic response to my circumstances seemed impossible to find, and this frustration fuelled my health issues and an anger that exacerbated everything.
Any entertainment I now willingly consumed had to, unsurprisingly, present life as tragedy; a reflection of how it felt to me. My next dalliance with Craig’s acting – Enduring Love — seemed a prime candidate: not only was it an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s ever cynical work but it had an appealingly miserable dual meaning. The story begins with a ballooning accident and the death of a man, with Joe (Daniel Craig) left reeling and unable to shake his need to find some sort of rational explanation for what happened. There’s also a sense of the transcendent at play, and it seems that Joe isn’t just struggling with this incident but with all of life’s inexplicable elements. Such obsession seemed the same as my own frustration and powerlessness.
Joe’s obsession is believable because its all-consuming nature manifests in a variety of ways. Sometimes he’s frantic, desperate, and angry, but his behaviour also veers into the sullen and withdrawn. I recognised these scenarios in my own life, the internal battles spilling out into my behaviour and the bemused responses of the people around me. I recognised my fears of the loneliness that awaited me with what felt like an ever-increasing number and intensity of symptoms. What works so well and makes this journey so compelling, is that the film’s never dogmatic about what he’s experiencing – allowing me the comfort and catharsis of seeing myself in that situation.
I continued to explore Craig’s work, fascinated by the compassion and honesty displayed, and came to realise how essential his performances are to his characters’ effectiveness. Love is the Devil has him as integral to the film, the story exploring the tumultuous relationship of a working-class thief, George Dyer (Daniel Craig), and hedonistic upper-class artist, Francis Bacon (Derek Jacobi). Craig is the reason the former’s story carries so much weight when the famous and infamously-flamboyant latter is portrayed with such incredible precision. The character’s vulnerability is portrayed perfectly with surprising gentleness and shyness of the man, making tragic his alcoholism and his distress at being stranded between social classes.
Some Voices tackles a character with a similar status but requires even more sensitivity. The protagonist, Ray, returns to society from an institution and has to try to fit back in. He’s not keen to take his medication, much to his brother’s chagrin, and whilst he finds happiness in his romance, the symptoms of his schizophrenia come again and again to the fore. It’s not an extravagant performance, an attempt to get some plaudits through a character unlike himself. All efforts are made to paint Ray as a multifaceted character, as loving and fun rather than enveloped by his illness, and that recognition of his humanity before his illness can be clearly observed in Craig. It’s a testament to his ability to choose projects keen to speak truth.
Despite such universally precise insight, it’s undoubtedly Flashbacks of a Fool and Enduring Love that have had the most impact on my wellbeing. The protagonists of both are trapped by themselves, by their desire to try and evade their feelings rather than to sit with them. Whilst these struggles do unintentionally hurt others, the people most impacted are themselves. The main message put forward by both is simple: some things don’t have easy answers and can’t be resolved by force of will. It has not provided a resolution to my problems, as they are deeper than the reassurance that films can provide, but when you feel ostracized from society at large, such reassurance can be a very welcome relief of pressure that’s susceptible to reason.
But they aren’t just a call to action for the individual; they implicitly recognise the role of society in aiding people. These characters all suffer from people not taking the time to understand them, whether it’s no-one looking out for George, a lack of understanding about Ray’s illness that allows it to escalate, or, in the two that most resonated with me, they simply aren’t given the tools to navigate life. All of these issues are linked by a lack of kindness and empathy. They suggest the importance of helping the people in our lives, and ourselves, to better handle mental health.
All of these stories, no matter their differences, are quietly important. They aren’t all dealing in hard science and show more extreme scenarios than many might encounter, but all have emotional truth: they portray with nuance that people are more than their illnesses, and show simple acts of respect and patience can be an important steppingstone to calmer existences. Craig’s raw and honest approach to his performances are essential to that nuance, and the impact of these stories on me is a testament to how getting your message out there, no matter how widely it’s heard, might be a hand up to even just one person who needs it.