There’s a moment about a third of the way through Skyfall that manages to perfectly encapsulate its opinion of the iconic British spy at the heart of the film. Casually dismissing the villain’s lofty accomplishments, Bond mutters, “Everybody needs a hobby.” The villain takes the jab quite well. “Oh. What’s yours?” Bond retorts, “Resurrection.” Released to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the film franchise, Skyfall is a veritable ode to Bond’s endurance – in both a literal and metaphorical sense. After all, not many fifty year olds look as stylish as this.
Sam Mendes, and his talented cast and crew, have managed to get Bond the perfect birthday present.
Before the screening, we were politely asked not to spoil any plot points in our reviews or commentaries. Quite right, too. Much of the thrill of Skyfall is watching it unfold naturally. I won’t pretend it’s an entirely surprising film, or that it completely upsets the tropes and clichés of the traditional Bond films. Indeed, it adheres rather rigidly to some, while avoiding others completely. It puts a new twist on old tricks, or simply has a great deal of fun playing with popular conventions.
Take, for example, the Bond girls. Everybody with a passing knowledge of Bond movies knows that there are typically two Bond girls. Each serves a function in the plot, and most of the series adheres fairly rigidly to that structure. (There are exceptions of course – Timothy Dalton was monogamous in his two films due to the AIDs scare.) Skyfall opts to play one of the two roles relatively straight, while swerving around a bit on the second. No, I won’t tell you which, but it gives you an idea of what Mendes is doing.
He’s not redesigning the storytelling engine or even trying to streamline it. He’s simply using it to tell a story that is still a recognisable Bond story that works as a film in its own right. There’s a clear sense throughout Skyfall that Bond owes a conscious debt to Christopher Nolan. When Bond arrives at the villain’s lair, he finds a set left over from Inception. The second act seems quite structurally similar to that of The Dark Knight. The third act – without spoiling anything – makes some rather overt references to the past of another stylish playboy in fleshing out Bond’s family history. (And not all of the developments can be traced back to Fleming, either.)
Don’t get me wrong. After all, turn-around is fair play. Bond has inspired generations of film-makers, and it seems only fair that the character and the franchise should reap the benefit of its own influence. The villain’s base might look like something from Inception, but Inception borrowed liberally from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The opening to The Dark Knight Rises was a larger-scale re-working of the opening scene from Licence to Kill. Just as Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace learned a lot from the Bourne films, Skyfall learned a lot from Nolan. And I get the sense he’d be quite proud of the idea.
The most important thing it learned from Nolan’s work was to craft the characters at the heart of the action. Just as Christian Bale played the most developed live-action iteration of the Caped Crusader, Daniel Craig plays the most fully developed iteration of Bond. He’s a real character. Ian Fleming famously wrote Bond as a “blunt instrument”, a mouth-piece for his views and a blank slate for the audience with Fleming’s tastes and opinions grafted in. Bond was so hazily developed over the first few novels that Fleming could retroactively make him Scottish (in tribute to Connery) without contradicting himself.
You know that a movie’s going to dig beneath Bond’s skin when it brings up the subject of his parents. Fleming established Bond as an orphan, but it’s only been fleetingly touched-upon in the most character-centric movies in the series – Casino Royale and GoldenEye. Here, we get a bit more of an insight into who he is and where he comes from – his obsession with fast cars and faster women explained away by getting a glimpse at his roots.
It’s the relationship between Bond and M that drives Skyfall. In a way, it’s the aspect of the story that is truest to Fleming’s novels. Fleming portrayed his M as something of a father-figure to Bond, a facet of the character that never really shone through. It seemed that Bernard Lee was just a delightfully acerbic old man who told Bond where to go and who to kill. Even when Judi Dench first arrived opposite Pierce Brosnan, there was a sense of mutual grudging respect between the pair – rather than hints of M as a surrogate parent figure for a poor orphan. While undoubted efficient, this portrayal seems to ignore one of the more fascinating aspects of the dynamic between the pair in the books.
In Fleming’s Moonraker, for example, M would take Bond gambling and for a nice meal in a posh club, and effectively guaranteeing Bond’s losses at the table. In Diamonds Are Forever, Bond sits idly by as M indulges his latest obsession with the study of diamonds – like a child listening to his father rambling about his own kooky obsessions. Judi Dench is obviously a lot tougher than Fleming’s M ever was, but there is a sense that she’s a mother-figure to Daniel Craig’s Bond.
M is for “mother” and “mommy”, as the villainous Silva taunts repeatedly throughout the film. There’s a sense that Bond is desperately seeking her approval, as much as he likes to play the part of the rebellious youth – remarkably similar to Silva’s relationship to M. For her part, M finds herself using the service to replace a family that has gone. Here, she refers to her late husband. In GoldenEye, she spoke of her grandchildren. And yet, there’s a sense that MI6 is all that M has left.
However, where Skyfall is most fascinating is in its portrayal of Bond as inherently human and compassionate. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace raised questions about Bond’s humanity – was he just a wind-up toy, a state-sanctioned assassin to be pointed at a target? Craig’s Bond has been described as one of the character’s more brutal incarnations. I’ve never bought that logic – Connery, Dalton and Craig were just as violent, it’s just that Craig’s Bond doesn’t put up as much as a pretence of civility. His iteration of the character is more honest about Bond’s brutality, more up-front.
In contrast to M, Bond seems to be overflowing with compassion. The opening scene sees Bond arriving at the scene of a botched operation too late. A vital disk has been stolen. One agent is dead. Another is dying. M orders him to pursue the disk – it’s the greater good, according to her measuring of the scales. Bond refuses to leave a fellow agent dying. “I’m stabilising Ronson,” he responds, pointedly. Later on, M is faced with a chance to take down his opponent. The catch: Bond is in the crossfire. Bond would never risk an ally for a shot like that. M does.
It’s nice to see Skyfall acknowledge that Bond does have a human side, and it gives Craig a chance to shine. Skyfall treats all its characters as relatively developed individuals, and that’s what gives it a considerable edge over most other films in the franchise. Characters conform to archetypes, but they are all given shading and all allowed a bit of room to breath. In any other Bond film, Q would just be a gadget man. Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory would be just another politician to get in Bond’s way. Eve would be just another flirty female secret agent for Bond to charm. They are all variations on those familiar character types, but there’s more to each of them than that.
Indeed, it’s telling that the villain of the piece only arrives about seventy minutes into the film. Brought to life by Javier Bardem, Silva is a fascinating creation. He’s not the most developed of the Bond villains, but you get the sense that this is entirely the point. You don’t miss him while the story is set up, because the film convinces you to invest in Bond. Weaker Bond films like The Man With the Golden Gun or A View to a Kill will try to distract you with a showy villain. It’s a testament to Skyfall that it is content to leave Silva in the shadows for as long as possible.
(As an aside, that’s not to suggest he’s a weak villain. He’s just not an especially strong one – but that’s due to necessity. The script wisely opts to focus on Bond and his supporting cast, developing them and realising them as characters rather than plot functions. Silva is a solid enough creation, even if he does feel a bit like he was assembled as some sort of Frankenstein’s monster from the assorted appendages of other Bond villains. Spot the traces of Max Zorin or Alec Trevelyan, for example.)
Bardem has a great time as Silva. Mendes wisely opts to film a lot of the character’s scenes in long shots, with nice wide angles, giving us a chance to fully engage with Bardem’s performance. He has less screentime than most Bond villains, but he makes the most of it. Although his blonde hair (and the plot involving the leaking of confidential information) call to mind Julian Assange, I can’t help but think that Silva’s bleached hair and fine suits are intended to make him a mirror to Bond. (After all, the blonde hair is the most distinct physical characteristic of Craig’s portrayal, hotly debated for months before Casino Royale.)
Bardem seems to relish the chance to ham it up, in a way that so many of the great Bond villain performances do. One nice moment early on has him almost flirting with Bond, caressing him, trying to catch the agent off-guard. Fleming’s Bond, a product of his time, would undoubtedly be quite unnerved by the experience. Craig’s Bond doesn’t miss a beat. “What makes you think this is my first time.” A nice moment towards the climax has Bardem’s villain reflecting on how tough being a Bond villain actually is. “All this running and jumping!” he laments. “It’s exhausting!” It’s to Bardem’s credit that he makes it look effortless. He even tosses hand grenades in a stylish manner.
Skyfall is, like so many fiftieth birthday parties, a time for reflection. It’s rather explicit about the doubts and insecurities that the franchise must feel from time to time, as it gets a little bit older. Early on, M is faced with the prospect of retirement. “You’ve had a good run,” Mallory tries to assure her, and he could just as easily be talking to the producers of the film. Later on, he has a conversation with Bond himself. “You’re playing a young man’s game,” he advises. He could be playing devil’s advocate as the franchise looks at the wave of imitators and parodies out there. Bond, as a franchise, can’t help but feel a bit… stately at the age of fifty. Mallory coaxes, “There’s no shame in admitting you’ve missed a step.”
When Bond meets the new Q, he’s stunned by the Quartermaster’s youthful appearance. They meet in a gallery, staring at a painting. it can’t help but feel thematically appropriate. “An old warship being towed away for scrap metal,” Q muses. Bond is certainly an old warhorse. Daniel Craig looks worn out here, haggard. He looks like he’s been through hell. Bond himself is hardly in the best possible shape. We’re told in no uncertain terms that Bond is hardly equipped for the mission facing him.
Skyfall is somewhat candid about the Bond franchise’s sense of Empire. One of the things I found frustrating about Quantum of Solace was the fact that it explicitly explored post-colonial politics… but American, rather than British. Bond has always been distinctly British. “An exemplar of British fortitude,” M comments, when she thinks he won’t hear her. Quantum of Solace seemed almost ashamed of that Britishness. Skyfall wears it on its sleeves. The flag is everywhere. It’s flying on masts, it’s draped over coffins.
It seems fitting, given this year’s Olympic games, but Skyfall is very proud to be British. M’s British bulldog even gets mentioned a couple of times – perhaps an explicit reference to the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, an idol of Ian Fleming’s and a call back to the glory of the Second World War? MI6 operates “on war footing”, from “parts of Churchill’s bunker.” The second act’s massive action sequence is set entirely in London. Bond plays word association. “Country.” “England.” The plot explicitly references the two last vestiges of British foreign power. Mallory is identified as a veteran of Northern Ireland, while M faces the consequences of her actions in Hong Kong.
Holding Bond hostage in his decaying lair, Silva taunts, “England. The Empire. MI6. You too are living in ruins. You just don’t know it.” The film deals with the fallout when M and British intelligence play a game outside their weight class. They lose a list of all undercover NATO operatives. Mallory describes it as “a list that, as far as our allies are concerned, does not exist.” Not only did M lose something she never should have had in the first place, what Julius No described fifty years ago as the “habits of Empire” cost the lives of foreign operatives as well. A politician accuses M of harking back to some hazy past – “a golden age of espionage.” It’s M’s refusal to face political reality, the politician alleges, that created this mess.
And yet, despite this candid exploration of the colonialism at the heart of the series, the fixation on Empire, Skyfall mounts a valiant defense of its lead character. Far from admitting that Bond is lost in a world that has moved past him, it makes a very convincing case that Bond is more relevent than ever. After all, as M argues, modern terrorists are stateless would-be mass-murders more in line with classic maniacal Bond villains than any other political threat over the past fifty years. The middle section of the film features an attack on London’s public transport by a villain blending effortlessly into the surroundings – a set piece that doesn’t seem out of place in a Bond film, but also calls to mind the London bombings.
There are, of course, distinctions to be made. Most modern terrorists probably don’t have satellites and ray guns in the real world, but that’s part of the Bond fantasy. Like horror allows us to vicariously conquer or fears, Bond allows us to confront those sorts of anonymous nihilistic threats, while hoping we can maintain some element of civilised society in doing so. Bond is a man who can face these threats without sacrificing his fine suits, his cultured palette, his sophistication. He endures. He survives. He evolves.
Discussing his philosophy with Bond, Silva confesses that he sheds “redundant” things. When something is outdated, or no longer of use, he discards it and moves on. Bond – both the character and the franchise – come with baggage. Plenty of “redundant” objects that probably seem like holdovers in the modern world. You could strip those ridiculous set-pieces out, or remove the Bond girls, make the movies more streamlined and efficient – but you’d lose something intangible and valuable.
Mendes suggests that Bond is anchored by the familiar trappings. We discover just how sentimental he is when he takes M for a drive, bringing an old piece of equipment out of mothballs for the occasion. It’s his attachment to the characters around him and the world he inhabits that differentiates him from Silva. In effect, it’s these familiar tropes and storytelling devices that make Bond who he is, and that give his stories that unique flavour and edge.
Mendes mounts a proud defense of these institutions as an essential part of what makes Bond a cultural icon. “Sometimes the old ways are the best,”a character comments towards the end of the film, and Mendes would agree. Bond’s age and his endurance isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. It is an aspect of the character that should be acknowledged and celebrated, not brushed away. Meeting Q for the first time, the pair exchange jabs about age and youth. Q suggests that age does not assure experience. Bond counters that youth does not guarantee innovation. Just because Bond is old doesn’t make him obsolete.
I think that’s the greatest thing about Skyfall. It is completely unashamed of Bond. It doesn’t feel the need to grant the character legitimacy by trying to ground him. Mendes steers clear of the gadgets (“here’s the latest thing from Q branch – it’s called a radio!”), but he plays up a lot of the classic tropes that haven’t got a bit of play in a long time. Without sacrificing character, Skyfall is the best Roger Moore Bond film never made. The underground MI6 base calls to mind M’s once famously mobile office. Bond gets some wonderful, almost absurd, set pieces. Roger Deakins perfectly captures the beauty of Bond’s globe-trotting adventures, giving the movie a delightfully panoramic feel to it. It’s as if Bond has learned to fly, no longer hemmed in as he has seemed in recent years – there are multiple locations, each with its own very unique sense of place.
I am especially fond of the sequences set in China. There’s a fight in an empty building that really needs to be seen to be believed, and there’s a wonderful visit to a stylish casino that feels like it could have come from a Roger Moore film. Of course, Mendes and Craig make sure we’re so invested in Craig that we accept some of the ridiculous elements, but the movie is never afraid that the audience won’t take it seriously. There a scene at the casino that would never have made it past the drawing board in Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace, but it still works fantastically well. And it doesn’t undermine anything else around it. It’s really something.
I genuinely believe that Deakins deserves an Oscar nomination for his work here. so far, only Samsara and The Dark Knight Rises have looked as good as Skyfall does. It’s a visual feast, harking back to the glamour and the glory that many associate with the franchise, only with a very real and visceral heart beating just below the surface. The sound mix is also fantastic. Even on a purely technical level, Skyfall is a sheer unadulterated joy to behold.
I also like that Mendes incorporates so many affectionate references in the film. It’s nowhere near as overt and distracting as Die Another Day, but it’s a nice way to celebrate a major birthday for the series. The opening scene features a major shout-out to You Only Live Twice, and the finale owes a conscious debt to For Your Eyes Only, both without seeming derivative. The direct attack on M and MI6 calls to mind The World is Not Enough, and Bond even gets to correct a fellow agent on handling their earpiece, like in Casino Royale. One of his gadgets from Q is a hold-over from Licence to Kill. An old friend from Goldfinger puts in an appearance, but I shan’t be drawn on it. Let’s just say that aficionados will have a great time.
Skyfall does seem, at times, to lean a bit too heavily on Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy as an influence. I can’t get too deeply into it without spoiling anything, but it seems to try a bit too hard to characterise Bond as a British Batman, particularly in the third act. Of course, it works very well. In fact, I’d argue that the two characters work well as cultural contrasts. (Indeed, Ra’s Al Ghul, the villain of Nolan’s Batman Begins, is perhaps the closest thing to a classic Bond villain on the big screen in the past ten years, arguably more “Bond-y” than any of the Craig-era Bond baddies.) Still, there are worse influences to have, and Skyfall learns all the right lessons.
It’s a loud, proud and triumphant celebration of a cultural icon. Bond’s family motto suggests that the world is not enough. Perhaps, for the moment, Skyfall is.
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