Bond and beyond
[This review was originally posted last month for the UK release of Skyfall and as a finale to our Across the Bond series. It has been reposted to coincide with the US release of the film.]
This review will be spoiler-free, making it one of the hardest I've ever had to write. Not only because I'm a Bond nerd of unhealthy magnitude, no doubt demonstrated by the Across The Bond feature Flixist has been running for the past nine days, but because many of Skyfall's biggest joys come from its celebration and repositioning of a fifty year cinematic legacy. That's not to suggest there isn't plenty for non-devotees to enjoy as well: these days, Bond follows the trend of the times, and the movie's central set-piece offers a very British take on The Dark Knight's formula for sprawling urban epics, before moving to the remote highlands for a climactic showdown which blends the 'Englishman's home is his castle' ethos of Straw Dogs with a strong nods to Ian Fleming's Spy Who Loved Me novel.
Those calling Skyfall a 'classic' Bond are wide of the mark, however. It is unlike any other entry in the series, driven by theme rather than plot and with a distinct identity to its visuals, soundtrack and direction. The Bond series' deliberate visual uniformity has given it a reputation as a no man's land for technical artists, but Skyfall is very much the amalgamated product of Sam Mendes' character-driven theatrical background, Roger Deakins' stunning use of colour and composition, and Thomas Newman's subtly evocative score. For the first time since the early Connery era, the people behind the camera represent top tier talent operating at the height of their powers, and it shows in every gorgeous frame.
The movie strikes a perfect balance between its modern subject matter and a romantic devotion to an idealised past. The plot, as revealed in the trailer, kicks off with a hard drive going missing containing the identity of Nato agents undercover in terrorist cells across the globe, before branching out into fears about invisible enemies and the perils of national security being entrusted to technology when there are people on both sides capable of manipulating it to their own ends. The symbolism can be a little heavy-handed, but it is a potent topic for a series which has so often thrived following accusations of being outdated. Such concerns may be embedded in the here and now, but Bond remains one of the old guard and the movie is a paean to the idea (and importance) of people like him standing up for old-fashioned ideals and ready to engage with threats on a physical level.
After turning psycho in Quantum Of Solace, Bond's inherent decency is established in the movie's first few minutes, characterised as someone who won't flinch in making difficult decisions while performing his duty but places value in every life saved or lost. Given the beautifully framed shot of M standing behind a row of coffins draped in Union Jack flags, the movie could be read as a tribute to the real heroes in our Armed forces, risking their lives in far away lands so everyone at home can sleep more safely. In this light, Craig's rough and tumble Bond is very much a soldier in spirit, albeit in civilian clothes and fighting his battles against individuals rather than armies. It's a powerful and honourable take on the character, finally giving an identifying purpose to Craig's interpretation, which until now has seemed trapped between the original character and modern expectations, even in his strong Casino work. The snobbery and sexism are mostly gone, but Bond is first and foremost a champion for his country, and Skyfall proudly restores him to that role while adding the self-doubting inner monologue which was a vital humanising ingredient of Fleming's character. A poetic interjection at the mid-point sums up the movie's ethos in a way that movingly evokes the meld of high culture with blockbuster action which remains one of the series' defining characteristics.
Javier Bardem's villain Silva is another rooted in Fleming tradition - a larger than life grotesque - while finding a new direction for one of the series' stock figures. The shocking blonde hair is an obvious nod to Julian Assange, as is, perhaps, the unsavoury nature of the character's sexuality. (Bond's riposte to some heavy flirtation is one of Skyfall's biggest, riskiest laughs). It's no surprise Bardem was attracted to the role, because Silva could have been lifted straight out of Pedro Almodovar, bubbling over with mother issues and concealing internal instability behind a florid manner. True, the character's history is delivered in a single monologue and we have to take his previous talents on trust, but Bardem, always at his finest in a hideous wig, suggests horrifying depths and sadness in his non-verbal cues, rendering the concrete facts of his sinister speeches compelling, but effectively redundant.
Turning a villain into a mirror for Bond is a familiar device, but has rarely been used so effectively and aimed so specifically. M has long been more expository figure than actual character, even with the role expanded in recent outings, but Judi Dench is this time at the heart of the conflict, an ageing symbol for an institution under fire for covertly risking lives in a time where transparency and sensitivity are the order of the day. Skyfall is satisfyingly concerned with consequences as much as action, and never have Bond's orders and his relationship with the people who deliver them been subject to such scrutiny. It is as much a character study as an action movie, proven by the relative dearth of huge set-pieces outside the impressively manic pre-credits sequence and intense finale.
While not huge in number, each grows out of the drama organically with considerable individuality in their scope and staging. The choreography is captured with a flawless sense of geography, mercifully making Dan Bradley's motion-sickness inducing Quantum Of Solace camerawork a one-off aberration. That level of artistry is enhanced by Roger Deakins' cinematography, which turns Shanghai into a Blade Runner-esque sci-fi cityscape illuminated by flashing neon billboards, Macau a searing cesspit of reds and oranges, and relishes the stoic Victorian beauty of London's subterranean foundations. If Deakins' gives the movie its visual flair, Thomas Newman makes it sing with the series' most daring soundtrack to date, mixing familiar Bond cues - perfectly deployed at key moments - with more unusual asymmetric rises and longueurs. Adele's theme song is restricted to the gorgeous if slightly muddled credits sequence, but is note-perfect as a contemporary spin on Shirley Bassey's immortal contributions.
A handful of small frustrations hold the movie back from the genre-defining greatness of series highlights like From Russia With Love or Goldfinger. While the many nods to the series' legacy are entirely welcome and executed with joyous glee - not to give anything away, but the Aston Martin twice steals the show - the components of the plot can feel a little overfamiliar. Yes, after twenty-three movies, some recycling is forgiveable, but it takes a solid hour before the movie starts producing anything which could be considered remotely new. Silva's scheme is also built on very wobbly logic, particularly the always troublesome that idea he'd been setting up his master plan years ahead of time, requiring Tiresian levels of foresight. A few revelations at the end feel hamfisted in a similar way to The Dark Knight Rises' wrap-up, and though having the gunbarrel sequence as a closer is far more giddily enjoyable than its misplacement in Quantum, still takes away the unparalleled frisson of having it announce the start of a brand new Bond. Considering how the movie ends, surely there's now no possible excuse for not putting back in its rightful place for Craig's fourth outing.