Tuesday, 6 November 2012
As both character and franchise, James Bond's cinematic legacy is one of the most famous and quite potentially infinite, at this point in time. The problem with the series before Casino Royale and Daniel Craig's gritty interpretation of Bond, was the non-sequitur approach to the character, as multiple actors took on the role but with little reference to the films that preceded. In other words, there was a lack of character development from film to film. But with Skyfall, importantly the character, as much as the franchise, is as strong and assured as Bond's first iteration onscreen - it began with the vital reboot of Casino Royale, breathing life into an exhausted icon, and now over the latest three films it's been a demonstration to future Bond directors on how to (re)build a character, and make him compelling again. By really persevering with a strong narrative arc through the current chapter of the series, it ensures the core of what makes the character great will be preserved for a long time yet.
What Skyfall does so well is to combine the new, more reflective direction the series has taken with the sense of fantastical adventure which mainly characterised the Roger Moore years of Bond. Former Bonds and tropes are riffed on with Bond referencing Moore's famous crocodile stunt in Live and Let Die, and Ben Whishaw's Q douses Bond's mock enthusiasm for exploding pens by offering him a radio instead. There's a great sense of abandon that was lacking in the somber Quantum of Solace, and of the three films Craig clearly seems to be at ease with the more mischievous side of the character.
Simultaneously, the film shows an intelligent self-reflexivenesss about the existence of Bond in an era of techno-terrorism, delving into the politics and relevance of the secret service when the terrorists are constantly one step ahead - a post modern approach to Bond, if you will. Where the Bond of old would take his mission briefing, share a witty exchange with Moneypenny and fly off to kill Dr Evil, Craig's Bond is a barely stable, ageing rogue, resentful of the executives above and aware of his role as a government trigger. It's in the questioning of the Bond formula that distinguishes Craig's Bond films from previous ones, as Judi Dench's M makes a decision that almost kills Bond and is forced to retire, replaced by Ralph Fiennes' Mallory. For the first time I can remember in any Bond film, M faces a tribunal to explain the loss of government records of secret agents around the world, based familiarly on the mishaps of current goverments losing precious national records. Whereas this might have been a little dry and time consuming, the machinations behind the scenes at MI6 are genuinely compelling, mirroring the sense of archaism in MI6 with Bond, which the film knowingly acknowledges as a character with the sensibilities of times past.
Producing his finest performance as Bond, Craig gives 007 an unfamiliar dimension of melancholia. For the first time in the series James Bond visits the place of his birth in Scotland, adding a shift of tone to the film which distinguishes Skyfall from its predecessors. Craig plays it with brilliant control, conveying the look of a man who is emotionally exhausted, but with an edge of resentment towards M, and the organisation who took an orphan and created a government agent. As a two hander between Craig and Dench, the final act is highly moving, their reluctant mother-son relationship paid off with a peaceful farewell.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Javier Bardem's Silva is a marvellously conceived, darkly funny antagonist, and easily enters the pantheon of great Bond villains. Extremely self-assured, and a sideways, leering smile constantly animating his face, Bardem is a scene stealing presence, his character nonetheless motivated by a seething desire for revenge against M. As it transpires, Silva was a former agent for MI6 abandoned by M in a pragmatic trade off which spared others' lives in sacrifice of his - which in a genial stroke of writing is the exact decision M makes at the start of the film, resulting in the near death of Bond. It's a brilliant idea to make Silva the flip-side of Bond, who is every bit the equal of 007 but oppositely working to subvert the organisation that betrayed him. His entrance is fantastic, as he slowly approaches Bond center screen in a wide long shot into a close up, and gets uncomfortably intimate in a scene of homo-eroticism you would never imagine in a Bond film 30 years ago, toying with the hyper-masculine Bond. It's a tense, but deeply humorous scene and from then on Bardem is superb to watch.
Behind Skyfall's excellence is Sam Mendes; the difference when the series employs a brilliant director - not to mention the masterful cinematographer Roger Deakins - is strongly apparent. The film is superbly shot, the action crisply and excitingly edited, and as ever with Mendes he knows exactly how to string together and balance action with subtle drama. For the majority of Bond films I cannot honestly name each individual director, but Mendes style is unmistakeable and seems to work perfectly for Skyfall's story - the shot composition in the final showdown at Bond's farmhouse in Scotland is breathtaking. As with American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and Road to Perdition, the subtlety in Mendes' direction is perfect for the emotional conclusion of the film.
Skyfall is the high point of the Craig years, and continues the revivification of Bond which began with Casino Royale. Exhilarating action with compelling human drama and a sly referencing of the Bond canon, along with superb central performances and a brilliant Bond villain ensure it shoots right up there as one of 007's finest mission outings.