I really liked Skyfall.
I like Craig’s Bond, to add to the plethora of voices who say the same thing. I consider Casino Royale to be one the finest of the lot, and while Quantum of Solace was a bit of a letdown, Craig’s interpretation of the character – more emotional, less flippant – was still mesmerising.
And that key strength continues in Skyfall.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this is probably the best acted Bond movie ever. Craig is fantastic as the recuperating British spy, dealing with the rigours of age and injury as he tracks down a shadowy persona targeting MI6. Bond gets to show off a lot here, far more than the one dimensional suave, sarcastic, eternally confident iterations of the past. Craig’s Bond is a traumatised figure who is clearly hiding some serious issues whenever he makes an off the cuff remark. The look on his face as he struggles to pass basic physical tests early on was amazingly emotive, a side of the character that Connery, Moore, Brosnan et al could not do – or were not allowed to. This is Bond dealing with physical and mental pain, from real scars and scars from the past. The filmmakers decision to set the finale in Bond’s birthplace, a beaten down manor house in the middle of nowhere, is a million miles away from previous Bond’s, and allows Craig to explore some of the origins and motivations of the Bond character.
But it’s also Judi Dench’s finest moment as M, a role where she has been largely relegated to that of Ms Exposition in her past six roles. Here, she’s front and centre, the main female role, the focus of the psychotic plans from the movies villain. M’s arc is that of the tough matron having to make the hard calls and live with them, and what that can result in down the line. In that, she intersects with Bond and his more cavalier “never leave a man behind” attitude, the films main source of (non-violent) conflict. Every part of Skyfall for M is justification, for her past actions, for the things she does in the present. For all the horrors she has inflicted on Bond, she’s still a motherly figure to him, that he goes out of his way to protect, and Skyfall is an examination into why.
The answer is that Bond has very few connections in his life – an orphan who ran away from his family life, going through women faster than he goes through drinks – and M is one of the strongest he has left in Skyfall. When he is “dead” near the start, he considers a permanent disappearing act, but returns home when MI6 is targeted. Bond can kid himself and others when he claims he does it “for country”, but the first place he goes upon his return is to M’s private residence, not MI6. In his duelling with Silva in the latter half of the movie, his entire focus is on protecting M single-handedly, leading to the somewhat unexpected finale in the Scottish moors.
And that connection goes both ways. M makes excuses for Bond, goes with her “gut” in a way she doesn’t for other people. When things get rough, he’s the only one she trusts enough to defend her. Her final words – “I got one thing right”, possibly the most emotive scene in the history of 007 – illustrate that opinion. The evolution of this relationship is Skyfall’s key strength and what puts it on a pedestal above most other Bond films. Skyfall and director Sam Mendes understand that there can be explosions, beautiful locales, sexy women and enthralling bad guys, yet room can still be found for a good plot, decent characterisation and the continuing evolution of the main players.
The other part of this trinity, “Raoul Silva” is clearly channelling Heath Ledger’s Joker on one side and Andrew Scott’s Moriarty on the other. I’m beginning to notice, more and more, this type of villain in movies nowadays: the evil genius with the incredibly complicated plan, always one step ahead of the protagonists, who is equal parts creepy, campy and intelligent, all topped off with a viciousness that shines through in brief memorable moments. Javier Bardem does a perfectly acceptable job with Silva, but I could not help but feel like I had seen it all before with Christian Bale as Bond and Ledger as Silva. The MI6 cell scene especially, and the subsequent escape, had many of the hallmarks of The Dark Knight’s similar set-piece.
Silva is interesting though, the anti-Bond in a sense, the all too real proof that M is as much a callous bitch as Bond suspects she might be. Silva was betrayed and left for dead by M, for vaguely defined reasons, and you certainly get the sense from Bardem’s portrayal of a broken, yet utterly focused man, whose lone reason for living is to seek some natural justice and avenge his abandonment. Silva and Bond are the two brothers living under their “mommy’s” roof, fighting for her affection in increasingly deranged ways.
Silva gets some great lines and dialogue though, enough to steal the show occasionally from the more succinct Bond. The rat story, wherein he defines he and Bond’s role in the film as two low specimens fighting it out to simply be the “last rat standing” was marvellously entertaining, not just in the dialogue, but in the way it was delivered, a single shot of Silva walking down a long room addressing a restrained Bond barely in shot. I can’t say I much liked the homosexual innuendo that followed though, which seemed somewhat ridiculous.
The few supporting roles are all acceptably competent, but such is the focus on the main three that it is hard to make too critical a judgement. I liked Ralph Fiennes subtle turn from “annoying bureaucrat” to “actually somewhat of a badass”, accomplished through a nice medium of backstory from Eve and actual gunfighting later on. Ben Whishaw is introduced as the new Q, now a genius computer hacker apparently, which is all well and good but a very far cry from the nearly always excellent performances of Desmond Llewelyn. Berenice Marlohe is the closest we get to an actual Bond girl, but her screentime is fairly limited. Rory Kinnear has little to do but frown and worry as M’s assistant while Albert Finney’s late arrival as Bond’s old groundsman was rather odd, serving only as a way of having an extra man to fight off Silva’s last assault. I’m actually at a loss to talk about what the point of that character was, other than to serve as a living connection to Bond’s past, which becomes important late on.
The biggest disappointment from the cast is Naoime Harris as the new Moneypenny. The cringe worthy exchanges of clumsy innuendo and not so subtle hints at sexual attraction made sense by the end as the last name was revealed, but only serves to highlight the total lack of chemistry between Craig and Harris, which is a disaster for that interaction. I never really felt that connection between the two that the interaction requires, just really inane scriptwriting. I suppose it might be a reaction to the seriousness of the rest of the script, where the more old-school back and forth between Bond and Moneypenny is, by contrast, badly out of place. The limited interchange between Bond and Q was far more appealing as an example of what this newly rebooted series can offer in terms of replicating the old.
In terms of length and pacing, Skyfall does have a bit of a problem. It is a touch too long at nearly two and half hours, and some scenes, like most of those set in China for example, drag to a substantial degree. Every set-piece needs a lot of set up before hand, and Skyfall shares Quantum of Solace’s serious weakness is not being able to craft a really effective foot chase scene.
Part of this problem is the look of the film. Skyfall is filmed spectacularly, but Mendes goes too far on occasion. The Shanghai segments seem more tourism adverts than Bond movie from all the panning shots of skyscrapers, and Skyfall just feels like a film too obsessed with showing pretty landscapes off a lot of the time. All of those environment shots add time and slow pace to a noticeable extent.
Skyfall chooses to go for a bit of an old Bond feel at times, not in the critical details, like script and acting, but in others. The choice of theme song, the inclusion of the Aston Martin, the introduction of new Q’s, Moneypenny’s and a male M, a few more explosions and quips than the two previous Craig films, they all add up. A lot of that is due to it being the 50th anniversary of course, and in the end it is only some lightly done touches, not big enough to distract from the very new Bond on show. They serve to demonstrate that Bond can still be fun along with serious. But serious is the primary tone. As Q says when Bond questions him on his rudimentary gadgets “What were you expecting, an exploding pen? We don’t do that anymore”. The more fanciful and eye-raising aspects of the Bond franchise are being relegated to tertiary importance, and I have no problem with that.
In terms of action scenes, Skyfall goes a bit more spectacular that Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace. The opening train fight serves as a nice lead-in to the main plot, the Komodo Dragon bit was unique enough to not be too cliché, the subway chase/shootout went on a bit too long but was still a bit heart racing, and the final battle was surprisingly effective in terms of tension, drama and resolution. Expensive, bullet ridden action sequences don’t have to be a bad thing, if they are choreographed and implanted in a movie with a degree of intelligence.
I suppose I’ll sum up by saying that Bond’s personal arc in this story can be seen in two prominent paintings. When meeting Q for the first time and feeling the pain of injury and age, the two contemplate J.M.W Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, depicting a ship of the line and veteran of Trafalgar being towed away for decommissioning by a black, smoke spewing tugboat. Bond is an ageing agent, a relic who is seemingly past it and facing into what may be his last hurrah.
At the end of the movie, victorious, the “last rat standing” Bond meets the new M, the space between them illustrated by another painting (by who I don’t know): a long line of Trafalgar era fighting vessels, primed and ready for action, looking magnificent in formation. Bond is back and he is better than ever.
Skyfall, fully recommended, is just one more step to cementing Daniel Craig as the James Bond.