Page to Screen: Skyfall (2012)

Skyfall
based on characters by Ian Fleming

My friend Natalya recently finished one of her more ambitious film projects—watch every James Bond movie. She started in the summer and wrapped it up just under the wire to see Skyfall, which she saw opening weekend. She told me it was a bit like breaking up with someone; there’s no new Bond for her until the next one, but she misses them, imperialistic pig warts and all (okay, she didn’t say “imperialist pig”, my inner Frenchwoman did), all the same. To continue that metaphor, now it’s a bit awkward, because I feel like I need to ask her permission to marathon them after seeing Skyfall

Skyfall, the twenty-third installment in the James Bond film series, opens with Bond’s “death” at the hands of another agent, the unflappable Eve, as their mission to recover a hard drive containing the identities of MI6’s undercover agents. He spends three months living inconspiciously, but when MI6 is bombed, he returns home to London. When the data on the stolen hard drive turns up to disastrous consequences, M, facing public and government scrutiny about the role of espionage in the modern day, sends Bond to investigate. The investigation puts him onto the path of Silva, a former MI6 operative, and forces Bond to question his trust in the one person he actually does trust—M.

There’s a moment towards the end of Skyfall where an outsider witnesses M and Bond cracking a pair of sharp one-liners at each other in the midst of ultimate and incredibly serious peril. The outsider’s face shows utter horror at the idea of taking light this awful situation, and Bond glances up at him and sees this. For a moment, we see Bond seeing himself and his organization (as represented by M) as others see him—as an utter sociopath. The writer Genevieve Valentine posits that Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall as “a trilogy that has charted, not so much the rise of a spy, but the birth of a monster”, a concept I’m quite taken with. While I’ve never seen a Bond movie other than Casino Royale (seeing half of Goldeneye does not count), 007’s cheeky reputation precedes him—a reputation that’s utterly thrown out the window here, by the simple treatment of Bond as a character, rather than an archetype.

The treatment is light, of course. The concrete details are few, but by reminding us that even Bond was once a child (although the film, thrillingly, posits that Bond was never really an adolescent) and treating death with the seriousness it deserves, we start to see Bond as a person. I remember enjoying Craig in Casino Royale, but I was stunned here. Despite Craig’s intimidating bulk, broad head, and pugilist ears, there’s something of the child in his piercing blue eyes; an utterly ancient child, even as the film makes much of what a physical and mental wreck Bond has become. (Of course, framing this Bond by the youthful Noamie Harris’ strong-armed and witty Eve and the youthful Ben Winshaw’s slight, quirky Q isn’t exactly fair.) In short, Skyfall makes Bond vulnerable, focusing on his relationship with M (played to the utmost by Dame Judi Dench) and how much he depends on her. And, to be fair, she on him, although she’s quick to sacrifice him in the beginning of the film—she believes in him, and that kind of hope is such an anomaly in their line of work, especially for someone so alone as Bond. When Bond returns, breaking into M’s house looking less debonair than usual, he mentions he’ll head home; she snarks that MI6 sold his flat, normal protocol for unmarried agents with no next of kin. Bond looks chastened.

Given this focus on M, Skyfall fares well when it comes to its female characters, even passing the Bechdel Test (as M is interrogated by a female MP, played by Helen McCrory). And I was delighted to see an Afro-British agent, in Eve, represented—the fact that she and Bond have a sparkling report based around the fact that, yeah, she’s the one person in MI6 who could destroy him, was just icing on the cake. There’s even a tiniest and faintest bit of queer representation here; while camp Silva is the villain, my cohorts and I cheered when Bond returned Silva’s come-on of “There’s a first time for everything” with “You think this is my first time?”. Unfortunately, the end of the film, without going into spoilers, gives us a decidedly retrograde power structure, one that I hope the next Bond film will subvert as soon as humanly possible. Retro stylings, not retro politics, please.

Said retro stylings are astonishingly lovely, starting with Adele’s lush theme song over photorealistic credits and ending with some prime real estate. Even the fight scenes, which manage to shock with the brutality of Craig’s Bond’s fighting style, are beautiful; the set piece in Shanghai makes such use of reflective surfaces, projected images, and silhouettes that I was awestruck, only to find myself lost for air with the climactic battle at Bond’s ancestral home. The Tom Ford suits are utterly glorious to behold and impeccably tailored, although I felt that the Aston Martin cameo was a bit much for such a serious Bond film, even as I cackled over it. Ultimately, perhaps I shouldn’t go back and revisit the old Bond films—I don’t think the old boys could keep up with Skyfall.

Bottom line: By making Bond vulnerable, Skyfall makes the venerable screen spy more of a person, especially as it focuses on his relationship with M. A beautiful and brutal film, although I must respectfully request—retro stylings, not retro politics, last five minutes of the movie.

I saw this film in theaters.

7 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Skyfall (2012)

  1. The vulnerability of Bond was explored in 1999’s The World Is Not Enough – for me, the best of the Pierce Brosnan Bond films….but it’s done even better here. Our James has troubling
    shooting on target, is extremely unfit….and it works.

    Judi Dench as M has never been better, and the scenes played off against Daniel Craig are wonderful.

    Adele’s soaring theme elevates the film into something truly special, and I put it on a par with Casino Royale. It’s that good.

    Bond 24 will be interesting then. But I think Daniel Craig is the ultimate Bond, having had my doubts truly quashed by him in CR.

    I’ve been to see it twice – and for me – it is the film of the year. I don’t speak as a die-hard Bond fan – but that said, I think I have only missed one Bond outing since 1987 and that was Quantum of Solace.

    Die Another Day was so bad I considered walking out. I like to think that film didn’t happen.

    Skyfall works because of the focus on M, you are so right. If I had one or two criticisms, it is with regard to the treatment of Severine who is basically a sex worker and cruelly dispatched of in the film.

    What about Eve? You go from being a field agent to a secretary?

    A third – I would have liked another female M. I’m not a feminist – I just think there’s something ‘old boy’s club’ about a man getting the M role – considering how great JD was in it.

    Loved Skyfall though. Mendez and co are to be congratulated!

    • I don’t know if Craig is quite the ultimate Bond for me, but I’m banking on Michael Fassbender as the next Bond, so.

      Giving hoots about women being treated as people? That sounds feminist to me! Yeah, I wasn’t pleased with the politics the film ended on. My film professor at college said that you can tell a film’s agenda by the last five minutes, and Skyfall gives us Ralph Fiennes as the very picture of English bureaucracy and a woman of color goes from field agent to secretary. My heart yearns for a picture where Dench remains M and Eve is her body guard/protege. (This picture might actually have minimal Bond.)

      But overall, I quite enjoyed it, especially as I’m watching the canon from the start and comparing it against this.

  2. Fiennes’ character was set up from his appearance to take over as M, I think, and I don’t have a huge issue with that, given that senior civil servants are more likely to be men. I do have an issue with Eve’s demotion from sparky, competent field agent to secretary – the early scenes with her and Bond in Istanbul worked beautifully, as did their combination in the casino, and I can’t see why, in the way that she was portrayed, why she’d want to accept such a demotion.

    The earlier Bond films take so many liberties with Fleming’s source material (particularly in the Moore era) that they are very different beasts to the books. I sometimes think that the films are more sexist than the books – in most, Fleming’s female characters are often quite strong and very interesting, and while Bond often helps them out of nasty situations, they don’t just stand back letting him do all the work. Connery’s Bond films are better than Moore’s, partly because they’re based on Fleming’s novels, and the fantastic situations and gadgets are less obtrusive.

    • Statistically, of course, you’re right, and yet, I’m going to miss Dench’s M and her dynamic with Bond. In his interactions with her and Eve towards the beginning of the film, we see a Bond comfortable with women in power and women who are more able than him (holy crow, Eve is good at her job). The scene where M snarks at a battered Bond that they’ve sold his flat and he just quietly, angrily takes it speaks volumes to me. Obviously, that dynamic is not solely due to a female M; it’s due to Dench’s M, her position in the film canon (spanning Bonds), and her chemistry with Craig. It’s not a wrong or offensive choice to cast Fiennes as M, but, compounded with Eve’s demotion, it feels like a huge step backwards. Had Eve been framed as the new M’s protegee/bodyguard, assigned to him so that she can be groomed as the next M, I would have been totally fine, but the scene feels much more like it’s actively trying to recall Dr. No instead of reinventing the Bond canon.

      And you have to remember, I was four when GoldenEye came out; even though I never really saw any of the Brosnan films, M has always been Judi Dench to me.

      I’m just about to dive into On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for my Bondathon, so I’ve seen Thunderball (my favorite so far, but it does feature Bond blackmailing a nurse into sex, so yeah, rape) and You Only LiveTwice. I’ve not read the books, but the films are quite sexist.

  3. Oh, quite. And I agree about her chemistry with Craig – Brosnan’s Bond always seemed to regard her as slightly irrelevant and not up to the job (but then, that was the way the films showed her, to a certain extent).

    OHMSS (and the book on which it’s based) are pretty good. It’s just a shame Lazenby isn’t better as Bond.

    Gosh, that just rams home to me how much younger you are than me! However, all the Bond films were shown routinely on UK television for years, so they were part of my pop-cultural education from a very young age.

    • I quite enjoyed On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; it’s an interesting take on the character, and Diana Rigg is a goddess among women.

      And I didn’t have that! We’ve got Spike TV here, which routinely does Bond and Star Wars marathons, but I never managed to hop on in the right spot. I’m a completionist by nature, so starting in the middle is blasphemy for me. (This makes watching old school Doctor Who very difficult for me.)

  4. Pingback: Page to Screen: Casino Royale (2006) | The Literary Omnivore

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