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.