Should I be ashamed in the same week that Barack Obama became only the third Democrat POTUS to win a majority of the popular vote twice, the British Prime Minister went on a trade mission to sell more fighter jets to an unelected authoritarian regime that systemically subjugates women and a shambolic journalistic mess has caused chaos at the BBC, I’m writing 1,600 words about the latest James Bond movie…
PLEASE NOTE: this review contains spoilers throughout.
I Reckon Skyfall is a pretty great film. I really recommend it, but if you’re seriously thinking of seeing it, you should do so before you read this…
The 23rd film in the James Bond series of spy/action thrillers was always going to be more than just another instalment: it had damage to repair. The widely-praised and excellent Casino Royale defibrillated the franchise with a brilliant new Bond in Daniel Craig, and a gritty realism that was surely influenced by Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films. It was followed by Quantum of Solace, which while trying to complete the themes and story from its predecessor, was incoherent from its title to its script to its terrible direction. More than that, Skyfall was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of James Bond, and the studio marketing didn’t shrink from raising expectations, by hiring Sam Mendes to direct and Roger Deakins as DP. Into the considerable hands, hearts and minds of these genuine talents was placed the expectations of generations of Bond fans. So, no pressure…
If Casino Royale owes a lot to Jason Bourne, Skyfall can thank Christopher Nolan for quite a bit too. There’s a lot of the recent Dark Knight trilogy in here. By the end of the pre-title sequence Bond is lost, feared dead. He does return, but embittered, wounded and sinking in booze. His rehabilitation is fractured and difficult. Although still pretty beefy, Craig is impressive as we watch his humiliation in physical, psychological and firearms assessments to evaluate his readiness to return to the field. It’s all he’s ever known, and it could well be taken away from him. He meets a nemesis who owes a lot to Heath Ledger’s Joker in terms of physical mannerisms & cold-hearted brutality, and indeed seems to represent the Other Half of Bond. There’s also a whole lot about parents (and especially mothers), but more on that later.
Now it’s true that Skyfall plays fast and loose with Bond chronology, and sometimes basic logic, but if you don’t stop to think too much about that, it’s a glossy, fantastic ride.
The Pre-Titles & Titles Sequence
From the opening shot as Bond emerges from blurry shadows into a dimly-lit warren of shabby rooms filled with bodies, it’s clear we’re in safe hands. The pre-title sequence is pretty much everything we could hope for from a Bond film. From motorbikes roaring across the rooftops of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar to jaw-dropping close encounters with railway tunnels on top of a train, Bond tries to get his man, and the stakes are made incredibly clear by his (amazingly crystal-clear) radio link back to M in London. A master file of all NATO’s undercover agents has been lost: it must be retrieved, at all costs.
Take the bloody shot!
M’s squawk of desperation sets into motion the rest of the film, and as Bond plummets into the depths of a Turkish river, we fade into a fabulous titles sequence, so good that it even made me like Adele’s theme song. Matched with gorgeously animated whorls of blood, and definitely harking back to Shirley Bassey, it’s fantastic. Her opening line This is the end… only reinforces the feeling of dread and uncertainty that hangs over the film, of Bond’s evident mortality and limitations.
A proper, old-school villain…
James Bond needs a villain, and Skyfall provides us with a terrific 21st Century villain in Raoul Silva, the ex-MI6 agent abandoned and left for dead, back for revenge. Not exactly an original set-up, but I Reckon in more recent times the plots and villains have been so complex and anonymous that the threat is lost. This time, it’s very personal.
Javier Bardem dominates the screen from the wonderful extended take in which he first appears. By this point he’s been trailed to the viewer as a cyber-terrorist capable of hacking into and destroying MI6, as a ruthless killer and abuser of the only ‘traditional’ Bond girl in the film. But at first, he’s a marvellous mix of gleeful high camp and only a little direct menace.
His opening encounter with Bond has direct parallels back to Casino Royale, where Le Chiffre tied Bond to a chair in a grim cellar; except that in that (great) sequence, Bond is naked, and assaulted with a heavy knotted cable-rope to crush his unprotected manly bits. Here he’s fully clothed in his dinner suit, and Silva seems to have no intentions of physically damaging anything; quite the reverse. He tenderly caresses James’ gunshot scar, barely raising his voice at all.
It’s not long, however, before we see the ruthless menace that Séverine had warned Bond about. He despatches her almost for sport, before escaping from the heart of MI6, from a glass cage that just screamed Silence of The Lambs. Bardem’s performance also seems influenced by Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, from the soft voice, the massive, manipulative intellect that is always several steps ahead, the pre-planning, and the sudden switch into violence to achieve his ends. Compared to Bond’s excruciating struggles and creaking physicality, everything Silva does seems effortless: he glides through London’s tunnels and streets, only occasionally even lengthening his stride.
He reveals his intentions in a fantastic scene where the Oedipal conflicts between Silva, Bond and M come to the fore. He talks to her like a mother, then shockingly removes a plate from his jaw to reveal the damage M indirectly wrought by abandoning him in the field, just as she abandoned Bond…
It’s only after the courtroom shootout that things start going awry for Silva, and we immediately see the frustration and spite in his face. Like an angry teenager he starts improvising, but he’s not so good at that. When the action moves to Scotland, he maliciously and deliberately wrecks the Aston Martin, just to upset Bond, and by the climax he’s like some avenging dark angel. This amazing image reminded me of Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects…
M is for Mummy
I Reckon Judi Dench gets more screen time in Skyfall than in all her other Bond appearances combined. Finally the franchise uses her considerable talents for more than a few quips. It’s true that the maternal relationship with 007 is repeatedly clubbed over our heads in the script, but it is great fun. When she returns to her house and Bond is there, she speaks like an angry mother who’s been waiting up for a teenage son. The revelations and half-revelations in the final trip to Scotland are important and moving. I loved that we see her constructing improvised bombs – she’s not just a desk-jockey!
All this adds some proper heft to the film – not only are the stakes globally important – brought horribly to life by news footage of agents being executed after their cover was blown by the lost file, but personal. M’s career is set to end in failure, her offices are shattered, and she may well have contributed to the end of her protegé.
Sam Mendes & Roger Deakins
Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins are genuine A-Grade film-makers, and in Skyfall they have done some of their best work, which is not faint praise.
Mendes has taken the rebooted Bond franchise as his starting point. The action is largely scaled back from the blockbuster sequences of earlier decades, but no less thrilling. There are plenty of jaw-dropping moments in the first few minutes alone, not to mention the explosion at MI6, the tube train in the tunnel, the destruction of the manor house. These are contrasted with some very still scenes, notably Silva’s first appearance and the final not-with-a-bang moments.
If Deakins doesn’t finally get an Oscar now, there is no justice. The Shanghai sequence is probably the best thing I’ll see all year. Except for the arrival at the Macau casino, and the deserted, ruined city, and the shadows of subterranean London, and the mists of Scotland. The colour palettes, use of light and shadow, and sense of place (especially interiors) are like nothing I can remember in a Bond film.
It’s there from the first shot as Bond appears as a blurry shape before emerging into the light. Skyfall is a film about shadows, about what has been kept hidden. Silva taunts M to think upon her sins, Bond has to confront his own mortality and loyalties. A good deal of action takes place underground, or in the dark, even underwater. One tremendous shot has Bond pursuing Silva beneath the streets of London, and as he illuminates a vast space, we see the shadow of his quarry escaping up a fire escape, lit like a German Expressionist film.
Don’t get me wrong, this film is no Citizen Kane. But it has a central plot device that keeps us involved throughout. What is Skyfall? And why does it matter? Lots of things are revealed or half-revealed in the final act. There are still issues of logic (if Silva could muster up half a dozen men and a helicopter gunship, why didn’t he just blow the house to Kingdom Come…?!) and the climactic scene felt very rushed to me, but the outcome is fantastic.
Demons have at least been confronted, if not destroyed. The list of agents is still missing, but Bond has a new boss who’s more than just a bureaucrat, and it feels like this could run and run. On the evidence of Skyfall, I Reckon that’s a really good thing.