Final warning: the following contains spoilers.
With its blistering box office success and near unanimous critical acclaim, the success of Skyfall – the 23rd film in the James Bond franchise – confirms that the 50-year long love affair between moviegoers and Ian Fleming’s iconic spy shows no signs of cooling.
Revitalised by both the canny casting of Daniel Craig and the decision to reboot the series from scratch, long-time Bond producers Michael G Wilson and Barbara Brocolli have not only successfully repositioned the franchise for the 21st century, but also taken it into areas that previously seemed out of bounds.
Apart from one or two notable exceptions, and those exceptions have tended to be some of the least financially successful entries in the series, Bond movies have eschewed any real exploration of what drives its leading character.
Taking its cue from such pop culture sources as Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, and even original series producer Cubby Brocolli’s own 1950s action films, the Bond of the silver screen has generally been portrayed as a cypher, a 2-D fantasy figure animated by the charm and quirks of the actor playing him at the time.
However, with the advent of 2006’s adaptation of Casino Royale, Brocolli and Wilson began the process of allowing the more doubtful and conflicted character that Fleming created back in 1952 to finally emerge onto the big screen.
This approach achieves its strongest interpretation in Skyfall, which offers up a vision of Bond that’s at once faithful to Fleming’s work, while at the same time rooting itself within the archetypes of modern action cinema.
Much has been made in the build up to the films release about the influence of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Batman sequel, The Dark Knight on Skyfall, but I’d argue there’s actually a much stronger connection to this past summer’s The Dark Knight Rises than anything in Nolan’s earlier film.
Much like TDKR, Skyfall is both a story of consequences as well as a modern folk tale about the rebirth of an aging hero who’s recovering from a devastating fall that has left him both wounded and bereft.
Taking its cue from 1967’s You Only Live Twice, Skyfall opens with a furious pre-credits actions sequence in Istanbul that culminates in Bond’s apparent ‘death’ at the hands of Naomie Harris’ rookie MI6 field agent, Eve.
However, unlike Bond’s earlier brush with the grim reaper, which is revealed to be a secret service ploy after the opening credits, Skyfall takes the concept of Bond’s ‘death’ and eventual ‘resurrection’ as the spine of the film and runs with it.
Wounded by the shooting and his seeming betrayal by M (Judi Dench), Bond not only lets the world believe he has died, but in the process becomes a virtual dead man walking. Shorn of mission and country, the former 007 is soon drinking himself into oblivion by an unnamed beach somewhere in Asia.
But when news of a direct attack on MI6 headquarters by a rogue former British agent, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) reaches him, Bond is drawn back to the UK to help protect not only his country, but also the one person to whom he feels any real personal loyalty, M (Judi Dench).
Forced to qualify for active status again, Bond is put through his paces with the seemingly officious chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) breathing down M’s neck as she tries to fast-track 007 back into the field.
With a strong accent on character over action, first time Bond director Sam Mendes and new scribe John Logan, aided and abetted by Roger Deakins’ sumptuous cinematography, create a solid framework that throws focus onto the most powerful special effect the Bond franchise currently has at its disposal – Daniel Craig. Arguably the finest actor to play the role, Craig is finally given a script that’s not only built around his particular incarnation of the character, but one that also deconstructs this venerable character in unexpected and surprising ways.
Dispatched to China to track down Silva, Bond soon crosses paths with what appears to be the films love interest, the beautiful yet tragic former sex slave, Severine (Berenice Marlohe).
Serving as Bond’s link to the villainous Silva, Severine’s unexpected and early death is a brutal and shocking moment, which shows just how out of sorts Bond has become and that perhaps the greatest threat he faces this time out is his own inertia and ineptitude.
Even more interesting is that Bond’s failure to (ahem!) rise to the occasion and save the girl follows Silva’s own attempt to seduce 007 during their initial encounter. Caressing Bond’s scarred body with lip-smacking enjoyment, Silva is clearly meant to be a dark, theatrical and (in classic Fleming fashion) disfigured and sexually deviant character who serves as a distorted reflection of Bond.
There’s more than a passing call back to Casino Royale’s famously eye watering torture scene between Bond and Le Chiffre in this face-off between Silva and Bond. However, while that particular scene played with homoeroticism indirectly, in Skyfall the issue is addressed head-on, with Bond himself implying that he’s no stranger to homosexual experience.
While this tease isn’t mentioned again, it’s interesting that once this particular cat is let out of the bag Bond not only fails to save the doomed Severine, but instead transfers all of his affections and energy into protecting the real woman in Bond’s life: the mother surrogate, M.
Matters of sexual subversion apart, another area where Skyfall succeeds is in its connecting of Bond to broader streams within the English cultural imagination. It would be too easy in a 50th anniversary picture to make a film that solely celebrates the series and its own internal history.
Thankfully, Mendes and his team wisely avoid overplaying that hand and instead focus on defining Bond as representing something both archetypally and poetically British. This is drawn out most effectively during Bond’s first meeting with the new Q (Ben Whishaw) at the National Gallery.
In this scene, both men are looking at Turner’s famous 1839 painting of the soon to be scrapped battered British gunship, The Fighting Temeraire. While Q’s poetic reading of the picture, and its implied connection to 007’s naval heritage, is insightful, it’s soon undercut by the taciturn Bond who doesn’t see any poetry or metaphor at work, bur rather just a painting of ‘a bloody big ship.’
This parallel between Bond and British art is revisited again when M reads Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses at the Parliamentary Select Committee she’s addressing. Musing on a discontented hero returning home to his kingdom after years of far ranging travels, Tennyson’s poem is heard as Bond rushes furiously across London in an attempt to save M from Silva’s latest assassination attempt.
Tennyson’s poem also serves as an overture for the final act of the film. And it’s in this section that Mendes arguably makes both his boldest statement about the character, while also taking the biggest risk by radically departing from the standard template of a Bond film.
Forced to flee London after Silva’s attempt on M’s life, Bond and his boss head to Scotland and hide out at 007’s childhood home, Skyfall Lodge, the place where they’ll make their final stand against Silva and all the chickens will come home to roost.
A dilapidated and empty country house on the Scottish moors, Skyfall is maintained by the gamekeeper, Kincaid (Albert Finney). It was Kincaid who kept an eye on the young James after the death of his parents and who taught Bond, the future gamekeeper of the British Empire itself, how to handle a rifle.
Watching Bond in this unusual rural setting is a jarring, yet oddly bracing experience and the deviation away from the familiar Bond tropes gives the final act of Skyfall a bracing, unpredictable quality that unspools like an expressionistic, paramilitary version of Straw Dogs.
It’s also clearly not an accident that in this final stretch 007 is stripped of any and all identifiable contemporary trappings. The iconography of martini, tuxedo and Walther PPK are gone, and instead Bond is reduced to his purest form, a British archetype stalking the flaming landscape of our collective imagination.
However, despite all the pyrotechnics and mythopoeic allusions, the finale’s real power comes in the way it unifies all the film’s strands into one contained location. Set inside the chapel that contains the graves of Bond’s parents and illuminated by the fiery spectre of the burning Skyfall, it’s here that Silva and M meet their mutual end with Bond as both perpetrator and witness.
It’s also here that Bond is finally given the blessing he’s always sought from M, a parental seal of approval that allows the fog of doubt that’s followed him throughout to finally lift. It’s the stuff of classical drama (which Mendes knows a thing or two about) recast as popular entertainment – and it works beautifully.
But these scenes aren’t the end of the film, and the filmmakers have one last trick up their sleeves as, after spending 140 minutes deconstructing the myth of James Bond, they give the character the ultimate resurrection.
As Bond talks to Naomie Harris’ Eve in a familiar office setting, we know that she’ll reveal that her surname’s Moneypenny, and that when Bond passes through an oddly familiar leather studded door, he’ll walk into a plush and seemingly timeless office and meet Mallory who’s now ascended to the role of M.
Having been truly tested by fire, 007 has emerged reborn and recast in a new and purer form. It’s one that’s both oddly familiar and yet excitingly different, a tantalizing glimpse of a future informed by the past that teases and comforts us with the knowledge that… James Bond will return.
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