So, I’m back after seeing “Skyfall”. I always knew it was going to be good. It’s the 3rd Daniel Craig Bond movie and the rule is that the third movie a Bond actor does is the defining one of their era: Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me, The World Is Not Enough. It takes 3 films for the actor and the production crew to distil the ingredients and get it right. So I had no doubts that Skyfall would be Craig’s best so far…probably the best he’ll ever do.
I just didn’t realise how good Skyfall was going to be.
For years my top 5 Bond movie list read like this: 1. Goldfinger. 2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. 3. The World Is Not Enough. 4. The Spy Who Loved Me. 5. Casino Royale. Now Skyfall has rocketed straight in at #2 and the only reason it’s not at #1 is because it isn’t iconic like Goldfinger.
The signs were all there that it would be a classic: The talent assembled was phenomenal. Daniel (we Bond fans always refer to the lead actor by their first name), Dame Judi and the regular Bond crew but now director Sam Mendes, the most amazing cinematographer in the world, Roger Deakins, Ralph Fiennes…RALPH FIENNES!…Javier Bardem (I’ll give you a moment to let his name sink in), Albert Finney (just where the hell are they going to put him in the movie?) plus a new Q and rumours of one iconic character returning. It has been estimated that Skyfall boasts a cast and crew with 45 Oscar nominations between them. But we know that just assembling a stellar cast and crew won’t save a dud picture…Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I’m looking at you. Aside from the amazing talent brought together for a Bond film, there was the massive amount of secrecy surrounding the making of Skyfall that added mystery about the project…what little we did get from the production team indicated that they were all taking this movie VERY seriously and that was a good thing, even when you consider that Bond films are meant to be escapist and flippant.
Now this review I’ve got going here is going to be as spoiler free as I can make it because I was taken aback by some of what happens in Skyfall and I feel that if you haven’t seen it yet then you don’t want details of the plot revealed. Seriously, the less you know about what happens in Skyfall the better. So this will be a review more like a mood palette than this happened then that happened and this was good and that was good.
In the film, the question asked of Bond throughout is “is he up to it anymore?” Even James Bond has doubts and when people start to question their very abilities and relevance then they inevatibly look back over their lives to find the answer: This is the key to Skyfall but the movie isn’t a list of self-referential goodies that the viewer has to spot: Die Another Day already did that. No, Skyfall does something more impressive. Ralph Fiennes’ character, Gareth Mallory, asks the question “why did you come back?” to Bond. Yes, why is Bond still here after 50 years in the movies and 60 in literary form? It’s a very brave thing for a movie series to do, question its own relevance but that’s what’s being asked here.
Throughout Skyfall, the Bond mythology is picked apart. Is everybody up to scratch? Is Bond? Do we need him, his kind? All that decadence, ruthless killing, the womanising? Is it necessary? We had that debate in the Timothy/Pierce eras but now the question encompasses a lot more: Is M up to the job? Is Q? Is MI6? There is a crucial scene where the nature of the threat MI6 is fighting has changed to the point that they can’t see or identify their enemies and characters question the very validity of MI6 and the 00s. Now expand the question to the movies themselves: Do we need them? Is it a series that is still needed? Is it relevant anymore? Spy movies…come on! The biggest movie series/franchises are about comic book heroes and big sci-fi spectacles with Indiana Jones thrown into the mix. Is a movie series about a British secret agent well past its sell by date? OK, now expand the question even further still and ask it of this: Britain. Why a movie series about British secret agents running around the world? The empire is gone and yet it still thinks it can throw its weight around the globe. Its sports teams are derided and everyone has reason to hate it. Why did you come back? Why didn’t you stay dead?
The genius of Skyfall is that it takes that question straight on.
To take the last point first; Britain. This movie is the most British of Bond movies. A lot is set in London and then Scotland but it’s not chest beating tongue in cheek patriotism that you get in the Roger Moore era, but the undercurrent of what it means to be British in the 21st century is right there. In this, the Jubliee and Olympic year, the Union flag is apparent throughout the movie but not used in the way the famous flag parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me did. In Skyfall the flag is draped over the coffins of dead MI6 agents, it is proudly flown over the rooftops of Whitehall and it’s on a piece of porcelain kitsch. The idea of a Britain, fallible, proud and accountable to its people is a central idea to the movie. The nation is a democracy and its fruits are to be seen and shared. Bond meets Q in the National Gallery, viewing a painting by Turner, the nation’s greatest artist. M quotes Tennyson, Bond literally defends his home, like an Englishman, and it turns out to be something like a castle. In Skyfall, Britain is a decent land populated by decent people and that is important.
So what about the fitness of MI6 to defend this decent land? Again the MI6 of Skyfall are presented as a fundamentally decent bunch out to protect us all. Then again, the world of James Bond has to present MI6 this way, not in a John LeCarre “everyone is compromised or corrupt” manner (although the style of Skyfall is reminiscent of the recent movie adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). However, the competency and relevance of espionage is questioned by various characters and in one particular scene where M’s fitness to lead is under scrutiny. As much as Skyfall is about Bond, it is also about M and the relationship between the two.
Bond is in some doubt as well: In the past, his judgement has been called into question, his attitudes, his fitness and even his loyalty but now his competence is an issue. He can’t shoot straight anymore, he’s unfit and he’s been judged mentally unstable. Yet M has little choice but to hitch her precarious fortunes to his because he has one thing left that she can count on: His instincts. Bond can’t shoot straight but he alone has an idea of how to track down the villain. “Why didn’t you stay dead? Why did you come back?” Those words haunt Bond for most of the movie.
So our shabby, worn out, unfit Bond has to rely on those aspects of his character that can’t be measured if he’s going to succeed. But is the whole Bond movie series shabby, worn out and unfit? The big special effects blockbusters in 3D have ruled the roost these last few years and is there room for a British secret agent who lives in the modern day and has no superpowers (and in 2D as well)? Moreover, the news the same week Skyfall was released was about the next Star Wars movie: Surely THAT is the franchise to end all franchises? How can Bond compete with that? Skyfall doesn’t play it safe: It’s a deep, intelligent movie with subtext and metaphors galore amongst the action scenes and the jokes. Die Another Day this isn’t. Some people…and I suspect 13-15 year old American boys here…aren’t going to get Skyfall. Not enough happens in the second act to satisfy those with attention deficit disorder. But I have hope. As I sat there in the cinema last week I noticed the other people in with me: A 50/50 gender mix with ages ranging from teenagers to 70-somethings. That is something Star Wars cannot achieve: It just has to get its core demographic of young men to turn out en masse to break records. James Bond movies unite people of both genders and all ages. They still maintain the tradition of title sequences instead of just starting the movie after the studio logo fades or else having the “Lost” school of smear title and keyboard drone. It doesn’t rely on 3D for wow factor. Skyfall is a triumph of classic film-making in a modern framework with an intelligent script and good characterisation at its core. We know James Bond will survive but unlike a lot of recent American action thrillers, you still get a sense of threat and danger that he will be harmed along the way. Bond is not Bourne; a soulless super commando who’s one objective is to live in peace. Bond is our protector but also a complex character who keeps adding to that complexity with every movie. Skyfall looks back over 50 years of its past and declares proudly: Britain is important, the work of MI6 is important, Bond is important, Bond movies are important.
By Nick Hughes