First in a series of reviews intended for a never-published issue of Her Majesty’s Secret Servant.
Skyfall’s poster image
By Peredur Glyn Davies
Skyfall is the worst Bond film in a long time.
The standard pattern of the Bond film plots, characters and narrative arcs that have sustained Eon’s 007 franchise for 50 years has been largely eschewed by director Sam Mendes and scriptwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, in favour of a film that goes places and does things that anyone familiar with classic Bond films will find unusual and even alien.
Just look at it. The gunbarrel sequence is in the wrong place. Bond is actively refused an exploding gadget by Q –and this Q is barely out of short trousers. The main Bond girl is a septuagenarian. The final act, which should involve Bond infiltrating the villain’s lair, is the exact opposite of that.
The climactic sequence takes place, not in a tropical locale, but in a wintery Scotland (even the funeral sequence in The World is not Enough was more glitzy). James Bond (Daniel Craig) in Skyfall is, rather than the superhuman quipmeister audiences are accustomed to, a frail, dejected shell of his former cinematic self, a man who can hardly do pull-ups and misses a stationary paper target five yards away. For goodness’ sake, he can’t even be bothered to shave.
What kind of a Bond film is that?
I could go on — and will. Scarcely recognisable, here, are the stock characters we are all familiar with: the expository boss, the comic relief gadget-master, the doomed beauty with a cute name, the burly henchman with no dialogue, the main villain who wants to blow up the world (and it doesn’t really matter why he does).
All right, Mendes has made some effort to include something close to them, but he too often goes wide of the mark and, instead of the two-dimensional characters that we are used to in a Bond film, characters who fulfil a role and help propel the film to its classic denouement with Bond and Girl 3 aboard a stranded boat in the middle of the sea (it is usually a stranded boat in the middle of the sea), Mendes and the writers give us a bevy of characters who actually develop and change over the course of the film. Our opinion of them changes and matures during the course of our time with them, and they end up as characters we actually care about.
What kind of a Bond film is that?
Take Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). He is surely meant to be the Admiral Godfrey character — the stuffy bureaucrat who stands in Bond’s way and who will get his red-faced comeuppance when Bond proves he can save the day just fine without any help from Whitehall, thank you very much. But Mallory, in relatively little screen time, subverts our expectations, makes us realise that he is not just some suit but a savvy war veteran with a compassionate heart and, I’d warrant, damnably clear grey eyes. When he takes his seat behind the mahogany desk at the end, it actually makes sense—we understand why he is there.
Or look at Severine (Berenice Marlohe). The sacrificial lamb character — Jill from Goldfinger, Aki from You Only Live Twice, Plenty from Diamonds Are Forever, Solange from Casino Royale — who is supposed to turn up, shag Bond, and pay the piper so that we the audience know how very naughty the villain is, that he would engineer the death of even his beautiful concubine if she stood between him and his villainous scheme.
But Severine, in her brief scenes, reflects an inner torment and depth of character that makes us understand why she behaves the way she does. Of course, Severine meets the end that her type always do, and perhaps it was not warranted here, given Bond’s promise to her to save her—but remember that our man Bond is a cold bastard and that what he does is get the job done, regardless of the price.
And then there’s good old Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), whom we first meet, not behind her desk á la Maxwell, Bliss or (Samantha) Bond, but out in the field being efficient and lethal, wielding guns and driving cars as if women can somehow be Bond’s equal in this universe.
They even call her Eve to pull the wool most cruelly over the audience’s eyes. When she finally takes her expected place in our little jigsaw in the final scene, I suppose we do now know why she’s there, why she prefers to work behind the scenes rather than in front of them, and why she and Bond have the flirtatious relationship that we know they do. By the final scene, all our players are in their appropriate positions, the green light above the oak door flickers on and we know we are back in familiar 007 territory. But it takes a hell of a time to get there.
And what kind of a Bond film is that?
As noted, M’s Judi Dench screen time is greatly increased in Skyfall over previous iterations (even more so than in The World is not Enough), so that her role becomes more than just the exposition that viewers expect. She certainly holds the leading female role over Eve or Severine. So instead of Bond and his lady sharing body warmth in a remote chalet in front of a roaring fire, we find Bond and M skulking in a dusty Scottish manor with the threat of doom hanging over their heads. There is little romance in this film.
What’s all that about, Mendes? Bond is shown to respect and perhaps even (after a fashion) love his boss, and we are shown how this urge to protect her leads him to risk everything in an almost hopeless gambit of luring his enemy to him.
Ah yes, the enemy. Silva (Javier Bardem) is certainly camp enough for a classic Bond villain, but again he almost ruins the Bondness of the film by making us sympathise with his point of view.
Silva is indeed Bond from a parallel universe, a Bond that might have been, an agent gone wrong through the fault of others. His deformity — he has been hideously scarred by hydrogen cyanide which he administered himself — makes him appropriately vile for the rogue’s gallery, but rather than monopolising on this deformity, Mendes and the writers don’t use it as the sole character prop for the villain, which is what one might often expect.
Instead, we are allowed to focus on what makes this man tick, and are given the chance to consider why he would do the things he does. Mr. Silva is truly a criminal genius. He almost makes succeeds in making Bond look foolish: he is ahead of him almost throughout the film, revealing that Bond too can fail. Do we want a James Bond who can fail? Bond in Skyfall’s latter half is frantic, desperately trying to stop a dozen threats happening at once, and the coolness and calmness that we expect of the world’s greatest secret agent is hardly there. He even needs help from Mallory and Moneypenny in shooting baddies during an attempt on M’s life!
A fleshed-out villain? A genuine relationship between 007 and M? A Bond whom we think might actually not succeed this time?
What kind of a Bond film is this? It is a long time since we have seen a James Bond film that subverts the expectations of what one presumes a James Bond film should be. Really, only in a film like From Russia with Love do we see a movie where Mr. Bond can be his own character and where we cannot predict where the next scene or sequence will take us. Of course, that film was made before the template was truly set out. That 1963 film was made before the expectations of what makes a Bond film were seared onto an international consciousness, before the scriptwriters felt shackled by convention.
Hundreds of wannabe 007s have splayed over cinema screens since Bob Simmons (doubling for Sean Connery’s Bond) first turned and fired into a bleeding gunbarrel in 1962. Some of the wannabes even outbonded Bond, and perhaps, in doing so, the template that Eon constructed has become stale, the expectations of audiences have been being met rather than shaken and stirred, the endless repetitions satisfactory only in a clinical, functional way.
Perhaps it really was time to take Bond out of Bond, and make, not a Bond film, but a film with James Bond in it. Start at the core, trim the excess.
Ian Fleming gave the world a character and the world played around with it. Strip away the expensive suits, the ludicrous cocktails, the funny gadgets and the wisecracks, and you can then start afresh. You can start from the beginning with James Bond and remake his world.
“Into the past,” Bond says to M, and, as they leave behind them the trappings of the 21st Century world and head north for the misty fells of Bond’s homeland. So too the filmmakers can leave behind the gilt-edged excesses of 50 years and wipe the slate clean. Build a new template by challenging the old one. Maybe if you did that you would end up with a film like Skyfall.
So, yes, I would call Skyfall the worst of all the Bond films.
But, on the other hand, would I call it the best film in the canon?
Yes, I would. With pleasure. GRADE: A+
(C) 2013, Peredur Glyn Davies
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