More HMSS reviews of Skyfall Part IV

Skyfall's poster image

Skyfall’s poster image


Fourth in a series of Skyfall reviews written for a never-published issue of Her Majesty’s Secret Servant.

By Phil Gerrard

When it comes to Bond movies, tradition is treacherous. It’s why we’ve seen You Only Live Twice four times (renamed The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, and Tomorrow Never Dies), Goldfinger twice (the execrable ‘A View to a Kill’) and why anniversaries and landmarks have been celebrated with greatest-hits exercises like Spy Who Loved Me and Die Another Day. So how best to mark the series’ 50th anniversary?

With Skyfall, EON’s answer is to nod respectfully to the past without it becoming dead weight. Most importantly they’ve borne in mind the lesson of ‘Casino Royale’, the first film of the Daniel Craig era, and of Ian Fleming’s novels, that one of the most interesting things that can be done with a recurring character is to find new things to do with (and to) him.

While there’s little in Skyfall’s narrative which owes much to Fleming, there’s everything in the atmosphere, in particular the all-but-unfilmed You Only Live Twice. There are the requisite bangs, crashes, betrayals, seductions, and air-punching moments of pure Bond, but there’s also time to reflect, to allow the narrative to breathe and scenes to play proper length. After the frantic Quantum of Solace, that’s a welcome reminder that relentlessness and forward motion are two very different things.

For some of us, Craig nailed what Fleming always intended during the opening shots of Casino Royale, but for any doubters (rather than haters) left, Skyfall should confirm that he’s the best Bond since Sean Connery. One more film as strong as this might crown him the best 007. His Bond is newly veteran and this suits Craig’s saturnine presence perfectly.

For arguably the first time, EON allow its lead actor free rein to explore Bond’s darker, more self-destructive side. This is a Bond pitched somewhere between the opening chapters of Fleming’s Thunderball and You Only Live Twice novels, rendered unfit for duty by a combination of trauma and inactivity.

Bond’s return from the wilderness and gradual recovery are paced perfectly within the context of the film, and crucially they restore the gut physicality so sadly lacking in the previous Bond film, Quantum of Solace. As in Casino Royale, the derring-do feels like it has a real potential cost: it hurts in a properly Flemingesque manner and again raises the stakes for a series which, on occasion, has been too keen to allow the audience to relax knowing that everything will work out OK.

One thing the Craig movies have lacked so far is a Bond villain of the first rank. Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre in Casino Royale was a fine creation, but like Fleming’s original he lacked a little something by virtue of the fact that the character is a desperate and cornered man with a bigger threat lurking in the shadows behind him. Quantum of Solace threw away a valuable actor, Mathieu Amalric, on a painfully underdeveloped role.

In Javier Bardem’s Silva, the Craig era has produced its first unqualified classic bad guy. A sexually omnivorous, capricious, and pitiful figure with a nice line in exasperated sighs, he’s motivated not by money or ideology but be the loss of any moral compass: he’s a borderline nihilist and all the more dangerous and unpredictable for it. Above all, Bardem’s work is both suitably big and subtly nuanced. He has fun with his villainy (as a Bond villain should) without ever tipping into the kind of pantomime performance which drains a movie of threat.

As the object of his vendetta, Judi Dench is given one of her too-rare opportunities to do something with the character of M. Often in previous films her role extended no further than barking orders and exhibiting clucking, motherly concern.

Skyfall expands on some of the themes established in Casino Royale, most notably the necessity for M to make hard, even harsh, decisions. Skyfall brings these consequences home with a vengeance. M is beset not only by enemies but by supposed allies, and Dench makes full use of the opportunities afforded her: M has never seemed so exposed and vulnerable, nor at times quite so defiant. Dench plays the difficult transitions with aplomb, yet without ever doing the obvious and begging the audience’s pity.

Some early reviews have stressed this is M’s movie, but it isn’t just that. All of the principal characters claim sections of the film as their own, and the movie isall the richer for it. Silva is afforded not one but two show-stopping monologues, one playfully sadistic and the other wracked; the introductory scene for Ben Whishaw’s prissily youthful Q has an extra layer of debate below the smart by-play; Albert Finney, whose screen career exceeds the lifespan even of the Bond films, makes what should have been a cameo both hilarious and poignant; and the excellent Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner registers far more than such an apparently functionary role should.

Even a character like Gareth Mallory, who could have been the standard bureaucratic-obstacle-turned-ally figure we’ve seen so often before, is given a character arc worth having. It’s a credit to the current rude health of the Bond franchise that an actor of Ralph Fiennes’ talent could be enticed to take a role which on the face of it wouldn’t necessarily require a marquee name.

The only actors whose characters don’t feel quite as rounded as they should be are Naomie Harris’s Eve, whose character is kept underdeveloped (I believe) for a specific reason, and Berenice Marlohe, whose affectingly neurotic Severine has, I suspect, ended up being short-changed by the need to keep the film down to a manageable length.

The script, by regulars Neil Purvis and Robert Wade and Bond newcomer John Logan, largely foregrounds character development and themes and leaves the plot quietly to take care of itself. For the most part this works. There are a few slightly too-neat coincidences and points glided over, but it’s hard to think of an action movie, let alone a Bond movie, which avoids these problems with complete success.

More problematic is the deliberate attempt to reintroduce humour to the series. The one-liners which the series had largely abandoned are back. It’s a mixed blessing. Craig handles them supremely well — he’s naturally deadpan and even manages a surprisingly effective bit of Roger-Moore-style physical comedy at one moment. Still, one wishes more work had been put into the gags which don’t quite hit the spot and the rest left aside. Above all, it bespeaks a surprising lack of confidence on EON’s part. The humour was already within the script (for example in the Q scenes). It shouldn’t need mildly crass punchlines to point it up.

These are minor concerns when balanced against the strength of the piece as a whole and the fact that the film’s human drama is so well shaded – something which happens all too rarely in the race to the next explosion or blatant appeal to sentiment which characterises so much modern action movie scripting.

Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Sam Mendes was to direct Skyfall, but he proves yet again that the Bond films do themselves nothing but good by hiring A-list talent. He’s a smart enough director to know when to trust his source material, get out-of-the-way, and allow craft to prevail over tricksiness.

Where Mendes does demonstrate an auteur’s eye, it works in the film’s favour. Having shown us one brutal hand-to-hand fight between Bond and Ola Rapace’s Patrice, he understands that their next encounter has to be something quite other, and the result, silhouetted against an ever-changing neon background, is not just a highlight of the movie but of the series to date. Where ‘Quantum of Solace’ staged one frenetic action sequence after another without giving a great deal of thought to contrast, Skyfall breaks down into acts and discrete sections so perfectly that one can imagine Fleming’s chapter headings as the film progresses.

It’s also the best-looking Bond film in years, particularly when seen in IMAX, thanks largely to Roger Deakins’ cinematography. There’s an immersiveness and depth to the visuals, most in-your-face in the neon jungle of Shanghai, most subtle in the muted tones of the Highlands climax, and a subtle audacity to some of the shots which doesn’t become apparent until one thinks about them later: no straining for effect here, just the kind of quiet visual intelligence which gives a film’s imagery a resonance far longer-lived than that of many action movies. Meanwhile, the hugely welcome return of Daniel Kleinman after MK12’s mundanely generic titles for ‘Quantum of Solace’ makes one wish that imaginative and thematically rich opening sequences weren’t all but a dead art.

One letdown is Thomas Newman’s score. While efficient and by no means poor, it’s very wanting when it comes to the kinds of melodies and counter-melodies at which John Barry was so adept. Where Barry could conjure up depths of mood which the movies frankly sometimes didn’t deserve (You Only Live Twice is a better movie to hear than to watch), Newman’s work seems often too timid.

Of Craig’s three Bond films to date, where does this one rank? It’s very hard to call. Casino Royale certainly scores higher as far as its construction is concerned: it’s far more watertight than Skyfall, which has its fair share of shortcuts and plot holes. Then again, so did many of Fleming’s novels, and it was the famous “Fleming sweep: which propelled the reader past these.

The things that make Skyfall are its emotional heft, its emphasis on character, and its attempts to create a film which is fine in its own right as well as being an excellent addition to the canon. Casino Royale was a welcome step forward for a series which from time to time (most notably during the 1970s and 1990s) seemed to confuse tradition with stasis, and Skyfall continues and expands upon that approach, while at the same time reintroducing and reinventing elements of the past. To have brought that off so successfully is a hell of an achievement by any standards.

There was a sound enough reason for the repetition within some of the Bond films of the 1960s and 1970s, when once they left the cinema they were gone apparently for good. By the time of the Pierce Brosnan movies, it was starting to feel like a comfortable but not especially exciting option. Literal recreations of past movies can be enjoyable but often leave one wondering what the point was (see, for example, Steven Soderbergh’s ‘The Good German’).

Now that the great early Bond films such as From Russia with Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are instantly available, mere imitation seems increasingly futile. With Casino Royale and ‘Skyfall’ EON has embarked on a new phase, mining Fleming for what hasn’t been done yet, paying respect to the past without feeling bound to recreate it, and never mistaking the letter for the spirit.

One hopes that Fleming would have both recognised and approved. GRADE: A.

(C) 2013, Phil Gerrard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: