Our Word Is Our Bond returns with Daniel Merry reviewing Skyfall (2012), starring Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem and Judi Dench.
Skyfall – A case of sibling rivalry
The 50th Anniversary of the Bond franchise demanded something special from Bond 23. The general, although largely undeserved, criticism that followed Quantum Of Solace meant that the pressure was definitely on Eon Productions to get this landmark movie right. Casino Royale had raised expectations to unparalleled proportions and if any of the goodwill that remained for the new Bond was to be preserved, now was the moment to deliver.
The man brought in to do the job was Sam Mendes, the Oscar winning director of American Beauty. Mendes was not necessarily first choice or, for many, even on the radar for Bond. However, in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight the mood for making films about heroes in more realistic and simultaneously morally ambiguous terms had changed so much that once Mendes’ hat was in the ring, he really was the only choice. Also of major importance to the success of the film was the hiring of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. The combination of Mendes’ direction and Deakins’ photography serve up perhaps one of the most technically accomplished and visually stunning Bond films in the entire canon.
A further plus for this anniversary flag-waving film, falling in the same year as the Queen’s silver jubilee and the London Olympics, was the inspired choice of having British diva Adele write and sing the theme song. Not only does Skyfall provide a classic throwback to the much loved theme songs of Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, Moonraker)—although with a slightly larger measure of melancholy thrown in—but it also adds an extra layer of Britishness to the iconography of the Bond series in its anniversary year.
Having worked through his emotional turmoil of the two previous films, Skyfall begins with Bond in familiar territory. He is required to recover a list that if made public could lead to the deaths of a number of undercover NATO agents. After a spectacular opening chase, we learn that Bond is missing in action and presumed by his paymasters in London to be dead. Only when MI6 itself comes under attack does Bond decide to reappear and come home. This is a well-oiled trope of the Bond series, seen also in You Only Live Twice and The Man With The Golden Gun, and to some extent in Die Another Day. In this case it is a necessary conceit to support the major theme of Skyfall, Bond’s attachment to M.
Things are, however, not that simple. At MI6 a shakeup of the existing leadership is going on and Bond has to undergo a number of physical and psychological tests in order to prove he is ready to go back out into the field. It’s during the psychological testing that we first hear of Skyfall, Bond’s childhood home, and it clearly unsettles him. It’s an important scene as it goes to the very heart of the film’s themes of childhood, growing up as an orphan, home, family, and the absence of a parental figure.
Bond is reinstated as a field agent and he resumes the hunt for the missing list. Eventually his search leads him to Raoul Silva. Played by Javier Bardem, this is a truly original and fascinating Bond villain: the deliciously menacing and sexually predatory Silva is a superb blend of the megalomaniacal super villains of the past, like Dr. Julius No, Hugo Drax and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but he’s also the counterpart and physical equal to Bond, seen in characters such as Red Grant, Francisco Scaramanga and Alec Trevelyan. To a certain extent, Bond and Silva could be brothers.
The scene that introduces Silva is one of the true highlights of the film. From a directorial point of view, the long take as Silva approaches Bond is inspired and the dialogue, especially Silva’s speech about rats, is some of the best in the film and the series. The exchanges that take place between Bond and Silva are suffused with tension: Alpha male testosterone is spilling over in every utterance and yet there’s an edgy sexual advance that neither party seems willing to avoid (slightly reminiscent of Rosa Klebb’s unwanted advances to Tatiana Romanova in From Russia With Love). It’s utterly fascinating and is one of the many moments that elevates Skyfall above being just a Bond film. This is great writing. This is great cinema.
Plot-wise, the search for the elusive list and the encounter with Silva are merely smokescreens for a more diabolical plan. While it’s always been true that the plotting of Bond films has never been required to always make sense so long as the films provide enough fan service to keep the faithful happy, it is here that Skyfall starts to lose some of the credibility it had previously established for itself.
On the one hand, Silva’s goal could be achieved so much more simply than the convoluted planning he seems determined to follow through with. On the other, Silva’s motivation turns out to be his desire to seek revenge and kill M, and although his reasons on the surface seem reasonable enough, they ultimately boil down to him throwing a tantrum and deciding to throw his toys out of the pram and hurt everyone around him because mummy didn’t give him enough love. From this point on the struggle with Bond plays out like a case of sibling rivalry between the good and the bad son, and because Skyfall has already cheekily cast M in the role of the Bond girl, this portrayal of her as the mother figure takes on a slightly disturbing Oedipal significance. Psychologically this is a fascinating theme, especially in the context of a Bond film, but the problem is that it’s entirely out of place and undermines one of the true achievements of the franchise as it adjusted to the 21st century.
The original decision to cast Judi Dench as M was a great subversion of the character and a victory for female characters in an unashamedly misogynistic Bond universe. However, to then play up the motherly aspects of her relationship with her favourite son (something which had already begun in the Brosnan era) and even extend it to a rogue former agent as a plot device throws all the hard earned emancipation of women in the Bond series out of the window.
What should we think about the gender politics of appointing a woman to a position of leadership and then turning her into mother? Moreover, she’s a mother figure with whom there is an ambiguous sexual flirtation with not only one but both of her ‘sons’. Thematically, the writing is a complete triumph for the Bond series: it’s mature, daring, risqué and played utterly brilliantly by the threesome. Narratively, it’s cheap and naive and totally undermines the one character who managed to break out of Ian Fleming’s post-war colonial mentality in which women were chattels and, to quote one of the more liberated women in Bond’s life, “disposable pleasures”.
However, Bond films are very much the sum of all of their parts and Skyfall delivers on every level. The human resourcing of MI6 is finally addressed and refigured with new actors coming in with a lot of promise to fill the roles of Bond’s traditional colleagues. References to the franchise’s heritage are abundant, especially in the wheeling out of the iconic Aston Martin DB5 (“with modifications”), and more than a few swipes at the previous over-reliance on technology in equipping Bond. The theme song is among the very best in the series and really adds to the sense of immersion when matched with Daniel Kleinman’s stunning title sequence. Missing is the gun-barrel opening, so for die-hard fans, you’ll find your first gripe very early on. However, the gun-barrel does appear before the final credits, perhaps suggesting that this is not the end but the beginning.
Ultimately, Skyfall is a fitting tribute to 50 years of 007. Somewhat bizarrely, it’s also such a good film that it sometimes feels like it’s at odds with its source material. As fans, we want it to be a Bond film with all the tropes and idiosyncrasies we’re accustomed to, but as more mature and aware movie-goers who have seen that action adventure heroes can exist in darker and more complex worlds, we also want it to be better than just a Bond. For the most part, Skyfall is a great film, but mostly when it’s not trying too hard to be a Bond.
MoM Rating: 9/10