Skyfall has had a lot of hype, and there’s been a lot of expectation; the anticipation that the director Sam Mendes of American Beauty and Jarhead would return to the promise Daniel Craig brought in Casino Royale, after an equally long 4 year break between films.
I’m not sure I agree with some of the praise that has been heaped on it; it’s not the best Bond film ever (best Bond film of the decade, perhaps; second best of the millennium etc.). But that’s not the point, not least because it’s not so much a Bond film as an M film, and why not when you’ve got Judi Dench in the rôle? It’s a thrilling, joyful ride, of some 143 minutes which felt too short despite being almost the longest Bond film (at a minute less than CR, ironic that for Quantum of Solace an effort was made to make it shorter and that definitely dragged!)
And it is indubitably the most beautiful Bond film ever committed to celluloid (or, as it it turns out, to a hard drive that looks like a wine box with a little tap on it) and not only because of the stunning Scottish scenery it features. There’s a sequence in Shanghai that’s more mesmeric and colourful than the film’s legendary traditionally psychedelic opening sequence. You can see how good the film looks from the trailer, but you can’t know that visual intensity is sustained until you see it on the big screen. (Incidentally, if you haven’t seen the film or that trailer, just watch the film. Although much of what the trailer shows takes place in or soon after the titles, there are enough clips to act as spoilers almost through the the 2 hour point.)
Casino Royale gave us Bond begins; building him up and into the suave cynic we are so familiar with. Skyfall tries to pull the same trick again, albeit focussing on Bond’s frailty rather than his inexperience. Indeed the whole film plays on the frailty and vulnerability of not just Bond but M, MI6 and by extension our own security. Gone is the infallible, unruffled secret agent that Roger Moore exemplified; in his place is an ageing, worn 007 who experiences exhaustion and self-doubt. The jeapardy adds, of course, to the thrill; but as we once again lead up to the gun barrel once again at the end of the film, and as we get another couple of the familiar regulars making their ‘debuts’ I don’t think this is a trick they can keep playing. At some point, Bond films will have to fall back to ‘regular’ adventures. (Though I’d still be delighted to see Craig in a remake of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).
This is also a somewhat inward looking film; more than ever before it’s not about the intelligence service defending Britain and the free world but defending itself. The focus, the target, is the organisation and M is personally involved. That’s something we’ve seen before, most notably in Brosnan’s third outing The World is Not Enough though rogue agents are a familiar element from recent years (Goldeneye, Die Another Day etc.) There’s a lot more of the MI6 politics we’re used to; I wondered if the big screen Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy had influenced this, though the writing is not in that league. I was going to criticise the dialogue, because the overall story is rather well crafted, but in fact some of the dialogue is rather good (“Some men are coming to kill us. We’re going to kill them first.”) It’s the details that don’t quite work, that take you out of it: for example there’s a minister sitting on the enquiry into the security services. When has a minister ever sat on an enquiry? It doesn’t make sense – who would they report to? It’s as if they are using the title minister to convey “powerful, important politician” to avoid the audience missing the subtleties of a less blatant shorthand.
Another weakness in the story was the standard computers/technology as magic. While Silva needed to have the means to genuinely threaten MI6 and build his own power base, computers have come to provide the special dark magic that can provide any baddie with an unassailable weapon. The problem is that any battle in the realm of this magic will result in the copious spouting of mumbo jumbo and super-flashy graphics on a huge screen. Skyfall manages to steer well clear of CSI territory, but by the time the computers are left behind it feels long overdue.
Despite doing something quite different from the usual formula, it has some quite trad Bond elements. Bardem’s villain is monstrously huge, both in terms of his physique and his performance. It veers only occasionally into the cartoonish, however; for a Bond villain it’s restrained and it’s certainly a memorable, classic performance. Similarly perhaps some things get a bit too blown up, but it’s generally in a good cause.
Now, it’s time to engage the spoiler tags…
I was supremely impressed by the climax of this story, which I won’t mention even in spoiler tags – if you’ve seen it you know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t, you need to. (But I will just say: can you imagine the scene in the chapel with Bernard Lee in the rôle?) This is Judi Dench’s finest performance as M, as systematically her career and her life is torn down around her; she never once flinches from facing the decisions she’s taken or the responsibilities she owes. Yet physically, there are moments when you are reminded that it’s 17 years since she first appearance alongside Brosnan, already in her 60s. And then you see her smashing lightbulbs to make nail bombs…
Of the recurring roles, I was not convinced by Naomi Harris. I liked her in the pre-title sequence. She had a job and a distinct part to play. Her reappearance later felt somewhat uncertain, perhaps due to her becoming another regular; and the reveal of her surname felt forced. (Did we hear what Bond called her, prior to that? I don’t recollect her codename.
I liked Ben Wishaw as Q well enough, but it wasn’t as exciting as some of his other performances, nor was it intended to be in anyway comparable to the great Desmond Llewellyn.
Ralph Feinnes was superb. He’ll do a great job; among the fragile a solid pillar of strength.
The score was the first in 15 years not to be written by David Arnold. I love his stuff and he did an especially great job on Casino Royale but I love Bond music in general and it’s exciting to hear a new composer’s take on it. Thomas Newman (the 8th composer to work on the series, I think?) produced a score that didn’t weave the Bond theme quite as deftly as Arnold manages (it crashes in with full force on occasion) but there are a couple of hauntingly beautiful tracks in there. Newman didn’t compose the Skyfall theme so it doesn’t feature greatly in the score, though the one track which gives us an orchestral version is a highlight.
Excitingly Sam Mendes has not ruled out another Bond film; and the gap before next in the series will be much smaller we’re told (just 2 years, so 2014?) I’m looking forward to more great Daniel Craig Bond (despite all the references to his age this time, I hope he’s got another 3 or 4 films to go) and in the mean time, I’d happily watch Skyfall all over again.