The new James Bond film Skyfall is a tribute to both the franchise and England.
When franchises acknowledge or echo anniversaries within their fictional world it can be a sign of creative inertia but in the case of Skyfall the opposite is true. Rather than seem like a re-tread of Bond iconography Sam Mendes’ take on the venerable spy is both fresh yet faithful. Everything you might expect is there but there is more. It is becoming a bit of a cliché to declare each modern Bond atypical but Skyfall really does venture beyond in a way that few have dared. Best of all it bucks the general 2012 trend of just making things bigger; instead this is a personal mission for all concerned.
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The James Bond in this movie could be a metaphor of England itself. Battered and broken he is `killed` in a typically daring, breathless opening sequence before re-emerging weaker than before. Meanwhile the heart of the establishment, the MI6 building itself, has been attacked in a manner that suggests a personal connection with M. Already under fire for a security breach that has allowed a list of the world’s undercover agents’ true identity to be stolen from under her nose, M faces a reckoning from inside the service too. Her new boss Mallory (a flinty eyed Ralph Fiennes) tells her she is retiring in two months.
Contemporary resonance abounds. Is Bond – in fact is MI6’s modus operandi- out dated in the modern world? In an impassioned speech later in the film, M alludes to a reality that rarely makes it to Bond’s world. We never really believed that mad billionaires were leasing underground lairs in mountains with a view to taking over the world but M’s chilling resume of the threats we face might have been taken from this week’s news. The film challenges Bond’s relevance with brio then shows just how he is more relevant than ever. It is awash with symbols of England and inspirational notes about the country’s place in the world today. The tone is sombre, filmed with muted colours whenever we are in London, with just the occasional burst of wry humour. Then in what amounts to a reboot of the entire thing concludes almost where we began in 1962.
Being the fiftieth anniversary film, there are a few familiar icons popping up and new takes on traditional ones – Ben Whishaw’s tech savvy Q is a delightful mix of old and new, while Naomie Harris’ Eve proves to be a different sort of Bond girl. MI6’s base in Churchill’s old wartime bunker is just perfect. We get to discover a little something about both M and Bond too, placing them in the real world to some extent.
|Silva's latest plot involved leaving glue on M's desk|
Not being a particular aficionado, I’d always assumed James Bond was just the name assigned to agent 007, explaining the changed appearances and decades of service. Skyfall suggests not, instead it seems each change of actor marks a new version of the story. We see Bond’s parents’ graves and meet a gamekeeper from his childhood played by Albert Finney with a slightly distracting beard. The script also posits M could just as easily stand for mother inasmuch as she seems to inspire exceptional loyalty from her charges. Early on it is her order that nearly get Bond killed and then we discover the villain of the piece, Silva, is a former MI6 agent who feels he was abandoned in an even worse manner.
Silva’s access to MI6 is one of the plot’s main credulity stretchers. In a brazen manner he allows himself to be taken then breaks free and causes technical mayhem but we never see how, nor is it even explained in a line of dialogue. It’s a shame that a film which brandishes such interesting themes and relishes a connection to the real world falls short in such key details. There are other examples too; what was the story behind the assassination in the adjacent building that Bond witnesses? Indeed, why exactly did he trust the girl Severine he saw there? Surely if Silva’s operation is as technically complex as other developments suggest, the radio transmitter Bond was carrying would have been detected? In the end, these are niggles but nonetheless noticeable ones.
Javier Bardem brings something new to the antagonist’s arsenal, impressing in two sequences in particular. His introductory scene is classic. Daniel Craig has mastered the art of conveying much but saying little; his Bond is certainly the most down to earth and he even manages to deliver a few quips (largely in exchanges with either M or Q) without resorting to earlier Bonds’ arched eyebrows. It is Judi Dench’s film though; probably her best role since Mrs Brown and the writers have gifted her an age appropriate story to wallow in.
Matters come to a head in Scotland which seems a little odd after we’ve been waving the English flag for two hours but in a literal way of underscoring the film’s theme of Bond coming home it makes sense. You wonder how Mendes and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan will make a decent climax out of an austere country house with few weapons but what they successfully deliver combines action, tension and some personal drama perfectly.