Zen, or Rufus Sewell–the next James Bond?

What?  Didn’t they just announce that Daniel Craig just started filming Skyfall, the next James Bond flick?  Sure, but if you haven’t been following along, we mentioned here yesterday that, unlike diamonds, no actor gets to play James Bond forever.  So who would be great as Bond if they swapped out actors today?

Back when Pierce Brosnan was rumored to have been readying to hand over the mantle, there was much speculation as to who would be the next icon of icons in British film, and… there just wasn’t a lot by way of contenders that seemed like the perfect fit.  It’s why many, including this writer, thought Daniel Craig seemed a bizarre choice.  Glad to have been wrong about that!

But this question comes up every time there has been an actor retire from playing Bond, back to the great Sean Connery.  After all, at least from the perspective on this side of the Atlantic, there isn’t anything that stands better for England than James Bond (OK, inching out the Queen, Will Shakespeare, and Doctor Who only slightly, and with perhaps an “attaboy” pat on the head to Harry Potter).

But if you can’t wait until 2013 to see the next James Bond on screen, look no further, as a role that might as well have been written by Ian Fleming for his master spy has already been written, cast, performed, and aired on TV and is now for sale on video.  It is Michael Dibdin’s Zen, re-broadcast this year in the States on public television’s Masterpiece Mystery series.

What is Zen?

Zen is a stylish police drama made by the Brits but filmed in and around Rome, written by Dibdin in a series of novels.  Our James Bond character is Aurelius Zen, played expertly by actor Rufus Sewell, who although British plays a Mediterranean without pause because of his dark features (the tall, dark, etc. variety that the ladies will fall for).  Over the course of the three 90-minute episodes, a slow burning relationship forms with none other than ex-Bond actress Caterina Murino (from Casino Royale), who plays Tania Moretti, the Chief of Police’s assistant, recently separated.  Zen is repeatedly referred to as having an impeccable reputation, yet indications throughout the series question that notion.  He is excused or brushed off and taken for granted because of his Venician heritage, something of an inside joke we don’t need to understand to be able to empathize with him.  But we find, as Bond sidesteps master criminals in his path, Zen sidesteps mafia-esque city politics to save his job and do the right thing, if not for king and country, for the good of the citizenry of Rome.

Further adding to the series in its Masterpiece Mystery presentation are quirky but well done introductions by Alan Cumming, who formerly played Russian IT guy Boris Grishenko in another Bond film, GoldenEye.  Cumming’s intros are fun to watch themselves, as he–a bit overdramatically–describes the incredible stylishness of the forthcoming program.  What he describes of Aurelio Zen might as well be of James Bond.

But back to the production itself.  From the 1960s style, elaborate opening credits it is hard not to compare Zen with Bond.  Where else do you still see so much effort put toward the framing of a film, at least not since the 1960s, in films like Steve McQueen’s Bullitt.   Zen actually shares more a handful of parallels to Bullitt.  Sewell’s Zen radiates an aura of cool, just as McQueen did.  The soundtrack from Zen is so rich, complex, steamy, again: stylish, it skips along and carries us with it, much as the flute and keyboard did accompanying the quick and metered score of Bullitt.  And the obvious, they are both cops, wrapped up in their own survival on the squad, dodging the higher ranks in their division as much as bullets.

But you’re describing an Italian show, you say.  Bond is British.  In fact being British seems to be the only prerequisite to be selected as Bond.  Like many actors in shows through the ages, TV shows, movies, you name it, Sewell plays Aurelio Zen with no attempt at a local, Italian accent.  After all, you don’t need to speak in a British accent to perform Shakespeare, right?  To be sure, Sewell’s British is not cockney or Scot or Welsh, it’s almost American, possibly residue from his short-lived but solid performance in the American series, The Eleventh Hour.   Sewell would voice Bond much as was done by Daniel Craig.  He sells it British because we know he’s British.  That’s good enough for us.

Accent discussions aside, Sewell walks the walk.  That is, he’s got the polished Bond look.  Like perfectly tailored suits that he wears like he doesn’t care what he’s wearing (why should he care? he’s Bond).  And while all the rest of the police department are laying odds and who will bed the new Chief’s assistant (Zen isn’t even in the running in the office pool), Zen pays no mind as the Chief’s assistant has eyes only for Zen.

And the Broccoli family could also not do better than bring on the entire production team from Zen to costume their next film, edit it, film it.  As production values go on television, I challenge anyone to find a TV series with better cinematography and direction.  And the location and setting of the sequences of Zen are exotic in feel as any location from Dr. No forward.  What more could anyone want for James Bond?

So maybe not only should Rufus Sewell play the Bond to follow Daniel Craig, we also have the crew to film that follow-on picture.

By the way, if you think you haven’t seen Sewell before, he’s been around.  He was Fortinbras in Kenneth Branaghs’s Hamlet, the star of 1998’s dystopian Dark City, the evil Count Adhemar in A Knight’s Tale opposite Heath Ledger, Ali Baba in Arabian Knights, Thomas Clarkson in Amazing Grace with Ioan Gruffudd, Alexander Hamilton in the John Adams TV series, the star of Eleventh Hour, Tom Builder in Pillars of the Earth, and is soon to have a leading role in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

So Sewell is my current #1 recommendation to see one day as Bond.  Other contenders?  We’ll have to get to those on another day.

C.J. Bunce




  1. Sewell also played King Charles II from early youth to death in the film “The Last King”. It made you wonder how that king could’ve held on to his throne so long considering he always caved to strong women, sidestepped wily politicians. He seemed to have no vision other than to claim his father’s throne for himself. Unlike Henry VIII who changed wives to get a male heir, he kept his Portuguese queen even after an illness made her barren. Sewell subhumed himself in his character’s psyche to do the performance.

  2. Mr. Sewell would be a great 007. No question. “Zen” is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television. Another Bond contender might be the equally British tv spy Rupert Penry-Jones.

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