...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Day 4317: JAMES BOND: Skyfall


Hooray! I have a new THEME SONG to sing along to!

"We've got Trifle...
"We've got crumble..."
"We've got pies full...
"To eat all...

Yes, it's celebration time. And not just my Daddies' anniversary. You didn't think I wouldn't get in to see the newest James Bond film, did you?

The thing is, before I can tell you all about it, there's a fairly MASSIVE SPOILER (no, not the one about Naomie Harris; the REALLY big one).

So what CAN I tell you?

M drives a Jaguar XF in British Racing Green. I mention this for no reason...

Yes, we have an ejector seat.

OK, spoilers-ho! You have been warned.

There's something very odd going on with time in Bond's continuity.

For a start, the familiar set up at the end of this film – M, Tanner, Moneypenny, the wood-panelled office – all feels as though this is bringing us back to the beginning, and the start of Dr No. Which makes Bond's timeline into a weird Möbius loop in which he goes on to have the adventures we've seen earlier, until ultimately the new M is replaced by a woman who sees Bond as a sexist, misogynist dinosaur.

But then there's the car. The DB5, the most famous car in the world. It would make sense for the Aston Martin that Craig's Bond uses to make his escape with M to be the one that he won from the short-tempered Dimitrios in "Casino Royale". But then it's got the ejector seat. For that matter it's got the machine guns! Are we supposed to understand that this is the car that Q (Desmond Llewellyn) gave to Bond back when he was Sean Connery? Does that mean that all of the adventures that happened to "earlier" Bonds have now happened to this Bond between "Casino Royale" and "Skyfall"? And, as an aside, if he's ditching the Jag because it's a company car... isn't the Aston Martin just as much of a company car? Or are we supposed to conclude that he's read the files from the Connery era and been... tinkering... with the car from "Casino Royale"? Well, as he says to this year's in-every-sense-fabulous villain Silva, everyone needs a hobby.

In fairness, it seems very odd that after "Casino Royale" was about Bond's origin story, his first mission, and the "Quantum of Solace" took place immediately afterwards, starting literally minutes after the point where "Casino Royale" finished, meaning that they both take place over a course of a few weeks at the start of Bond's double-oh career, then suddenly "Skyfall" is talking about him as a washed up, out of date, past-it old man.

Of course, in part, that's because this film is discussing Bond – and the Secret Service in a wider sense – as to whether they still have any relevance in a post-Empire, post-Cold War world. There's some irony there, in that Judi Dench's M came in in "Goldeneye" describing Bond as a relic of the Cold War and here she is now defending the service and the double-oh section on the grounds they are more needed than ever.

Does the world need an Empire to look after it? Does it need Britain? We certainly don't seem to have done that good a job. Just as Bond, old, tired, half-broken is a symbol of what we think we still are, Silva is emblematic of all the sordid little compromises we've made just to get along. Your sins will find you out, indeed.

"Fiat justitia ruat caelum"

"Let Justice be Done, though the Sky fall"

This is the dilemma presented at the conclusion of Moore and Gibbons' seminal "Watchmen": the World has been saved from nuclear armageddon by a grand deception, but that deception itself was a crime that cost millions of lives. Justice – personified by the vigilante Rorschach – demands that the perpetrator of that crime be exposed and punished, even though the inevitable consequence will be the unravelling of the fragile, new-formed peace and almost certainly the end of the World.

"Skyfall", the twenty-third James Bond film, starts from a similar choice. Not, admittedly, on the same scale, but coming from the same place. M commits an injustice, handing over one of her own agents to the Chinese, knowing he would go to torture and death, in return for six other agents and a peaceful hand-over of Hong Kong. One of those dirty little diplomatic compromises that see innocent people chewed up and spat out by the system in the name of the greater good.

M justifies this – to Bond, to herself – by picking an agent, Tiago Rodriguez, who was exceeding his brief, doing a little work for himself on the side. But recall her first scene, her very first scene back in "GoldenEye" with an older, more cynical Bond:

"If you think I haven't got the balls to send a man out to die, then you're dead wrong. But I won't do it on a whim."

With hindsight (or retcon) she's not talking about what she might do (to Bond) but what she has already done.

Rodriguez however survives to reinvent himself as cyber-terrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), an alarmingly-what-have-you-done-to-your-hair-bleach-blond ambisexual with a topical penchant for revealing the innermost secrets of the Secret Service – in the memorable phrase of the Metro's reviewer "half Julian Assange, half Julian Clary".

Silva's pronounced accidie – not to mention sexual ambivalence – is a reflection of Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, and many of the characters he wrote, especially the villains, where sexual deviancy as much as ethnicity was linked to moral corruption, charming old bigot that he was. Bond's response – "what makes you think this is my first time?" – is a "fifty-seven academics just punched the air" moment, reflecting the oft-asserted suggestion that Bond himself may be an over-compensating closet homosexual (again, allegedly, like Fleming himself).

In the movies, Bond Villains tend to fall into one of two categories: the charismatic "masterminds" like Drax ("Moonraker"), Stromberg ("The Spy Who Loved Me"), Goldfinger (hazard a guess) or, of course, Blofeld (five out of the first seven movies); and the "anti-Bonds" such as "Red" Grant ("From Russia With Love"), Colonel Moon's alter-ego Gustav Graves (in "Die Another Day"), or Alex "Janus" Trevelyan from "GoldenEye".

Silva clearly falls into the latter category (though, actually, the "anti-Bonds" have become much more common in these days when we expect baddies to do their own physical brutality without the need for henchmen).

"Skyfall" hinges around the scene in the middle, literally and metaphorically at the heart of the film, where Bond is tied to a chair and introduced to Silva, his opposite, for the first time. Not so much a clash of personalities – or even a homoerotic seduction – as a presentation of two mutually-exclusive worldviews.

"Mommy was very bad," says Silva.

"She never lied to me," asserts Bond.

Did she lie, when she said Bond passed his MI6 assessments? Or did he lie to the assessments, faking his low scores in the knowledge that the Service had been penetrated by someone easily capable of discovering his results? Either that or Bond stages a truly remarkable recovery once back in the field, eliminating six of Silva's men in as many seconds before holding the man himself at gunpoint while the helicopter cavalry arrive.

Of course, she tells lies to him all the time. But that's not the point.

From the very beginning, the relationship between M and Bond, that is between this M and this Bond, has been characterised by deception. He has repeatedly shown the ability to penetrate her defences, to her flat, to her computer, to her real meaning behind the words she uses. His talent is either impossible or something in which she has connived. Similarly, she has repeatedly given him orders to do one thing while anticipating that he will do what she really wants instead. She gives him purpose. He gives her deniability.

What Bond is saying is that there is a deeper truth to his relationship with M, one they have not, possibly cannot have, acknowledged. M has never misused Bond. Not even when she gives the order – "take the bloody shot!" – that sees him knocked off a train and believed drowned. He's aggrieved that she didn't trust him to do the job on his own, but he also implicitly understands that "licence to kill" means "licence to be in the line of fire".

A brief digression: during the fight in the lair of the Komodo Dragons – yes, Komodo Dragons are this year's piranha fish – when Bond effects his escape by using one's back as a step, it occurred to me, "hey, isn't that the alligator scene from 'Live and Let Die'?" and I began to wonder if there aren't references to all the other Bond films, a game played as recently as "Die Another Day", the twentieth in the sequence.

It's quite possible that once you start looking for these things, then you end up reading them in whether they are there or not, so when Bond's response to Ben Wilshaw as the new Q is "You must be joking" (as Connery to Desmond Llewellyn in "Goldfinger") or you see the unlikely return of the signature gun from "Licence to Kill" you think you're onto something, but then you find yourself thinking is Sévérine armed with a Beretta as a reference to the gun M takes off Bond in "Dr No." and then you're reduced to bluffing "didn't Silva mention something about redirecting a satellite" as a nod to the central plot of "Tomorrow Never Dies".

In spite of that, Alex felt that there were particularly strong echoes of the Pierce Brosnan years.

And that's quite appropriate because those are also the Judi Dench years.

So, in particular, as a former SIS agent, literally burned by the Service, scarred and obsessed with (from their point of view) betrayal, Silva is an almost exact match for the villain of her first movie, Sean Bean's two-faced 006; while the personal history with M brings to mind Sophie Marceau's Electra in "The World is Not Enough".

The repeated theme of the post-1990 Bonds has of course been "what is the point of you any more"; "GoldenEye" very strongly playing the before/after the fall of communism card, while the New World Order, particularly the rise of China, is the backdrop of both "Tomorrow Never Dies" and "Die Another Day". While, again, "The World is Not Enough" uses a wounded shoulder as a repeated reference to Bond's aging and the damage that his life does to his body.

Though if we're speaking of thematic similarities, the other Bond film that comes to mind is "For Your Eyes Only", with "Skyfall" resonating thematically with the 1981 film's motifs of revenge and an older Bond.

"For Your Eyes Only" saw Roger Moore's Bond placing flowers on the grave of his wife Tracy, not only a part of that film's recognition that Bond was a man with "a past", but also the first time the series had made even an implied statement that Moore's Bond was the same man to whom the events of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" had happened. (In contrast with "Live and Let Die" which had gone out of its way to suggest Moore's agent could be a different man, drinking whisky instead of martini, armed with a huge Smith and Wesson rather than the Walther and so on.) Similar intimations of mortality are shot through "Skyfall", starting from the foreshadowing of Bond's concern that a wounded fellow agent will bleed to death before medical help can arrive, through his bearded reappearance – like his own ghost – in M's house, and via the word in passing that M's husband (seen – ish – in "Casino Royale") has died, to the graves at the chapel on the Skyfall estate in Scotland.

That progression reminds me just how long this movie is. At 143 minutes it's technically a minute shorter than "Casino Royale". But it's a lot longer than the 108 minutes of "Quantum of Solace".

And while "Quantum of Solace" felt like little more than an extended pre-title sequence, "Skyfall" feels like at least three Bond films in one: the pre-titles that does the now-traditional Craig era free-running escapades but bigger and bolder (as with the trip to Venice in "Casino Royale", this chase round Istanbul seems to suggest that you can't go wrong when returning to the locations of "From Russia With Love"); the trip to Macau and Shanghai and then by junk to Silva's island, which is very much "The Man with the Golden Gun"; Silva's "he wanted us to catch him" plot, which is a mash up of "Silence of the Lambs", "Day of the Jackal" and, as almost everyone has spotted, the Joker's twisty-turny plot from "The Dark Knight"; and then the final "Home Alone" section. (Somehow I'd guessed from Adele's lyrics that "Skyfall" – like "Goldeneye" in the real world – would be the name of a house.)

The colour tones for each section are quite distinct too, the bright sunlight of Istanbul (before the fall); the super-saturated lighting, be it neons in Macau, fireworks in Shanghai or over-bright sun in the Island, all suggesting an unreal, exotic, other world; giving way to the greys of rain-soaked Britain. As night comes in in the last third it feels cold and oppressive in a way that it didn't in the Far East parts.

Pastiche of Nolan (Silva's island, like something devastated by a tsunami, is as reminiscent of "Inception" as the later plot twists are of "The Dark Knight") is clearly the new pastiche of Bourne. But about that plot-within-a-plot. The Joker, in "The Dark Knight" has an endgame beyond the exigencies of getting himself locked up so that he can get into the secure prison cells of the Gotham PD. That's all just one more step on the way to making himself top dog of Gotham's criminal underworld (and putting that underworld back in charge, the way it was before Batman).

Silva has no such overriding aim. His motives appear to begin and end with taking revenge – or, from his point of view, seeing justice done – by having M humiliated and killed. Which makes the whole business seem ridiculously overcomplicated. For goodness' sake, he's got a bomb planted set to derail a passing tube train just on the off-chance that someone manages to work out how he's got out of MI6, decrypt his computer map, work out where he's going and chase him through the tunnels and the tube to get there. That's serious planning in depth.

(And was I alone in being surprised – and a little disappointed – that that tube train wasn't as full of commuters as every other tube train and platform we'd seen up to that point?)

I kept expecting the other shoe to drop, for there to be a reveal of the "diabolical mastermind" behind the scenes, pulling Silva's strings.

In that scene on Silva's island again, the villain explicitly describes his cyber-terrorism as picking his own secret missions "for the highest bidder" which led me to expect him to be acting as an agent or a catspaw for someone else.

At this point you might rightly be thinking of a final-scene cameo from Jesper Christensen as "Mr White", although after the perceived critical failure of "Quantum of Solace", we're sadly unlikely to be seeing him or his SpECTRE-lite buddies again. Sadly, in my view, because SpECTRE would be the final part of re-creating the original "classic" Bond set up.

But the real "obvious suspect" was Ralph Fiennes (here playing Lord Voldemort in a very grumpy mood in spite of getting his nose back – actually, his character's name is Mallory, but I kept thinking of him as a Marlow. As in Kit.). His backstory places him in charge in Northern Ireland and even "Spooks" uses that as code for "a bit dodgy" whenever they want Harry to be a bit more shades of grey. Plus, he ends up with M's job – how is he not obviously the villain?

The fact that he saves M's life, and gets shot in the shoulder for his pains, seems like exactly the sort of "appears to be the hero" Xanatos Gambit you'd expect from a master manipulator.

In fact, Silva bursting into the inquiry, guns blazing, doesn't appear to serve any purpose other than giving Mr Fiennes his "I know an awful lot about intelligence and I can save you from terrorists" moment.

(And to show that, for all their supposed brilliance, when it comes down to it neither Silva nor Bond can shoot a moving target from three feet away.)

For the first half of the movie, the McGuffin – oddly forgotten in the second half – has been a list of all NATO agents embedded within terrorist cells (initially on the hard drive Bond and Eve struggle to recover in the pre-titles; later in possession of M's mysterious enemy whom Bond seeks to trace). Cheekily, this is clearly the "NOC list" plot device of the first "Mission: Impossible" film. But also, as M's debriefing with Lord Voldemort stresses, it's a list that the Secret Service shouldn't have ought to have had, and that our allies do not know we possessed.

This is the sin that will bring M down – something that the film doesn't properly emphasise – that she will be exposed for spying on our friends, an act of betrayal.

Silva's discovery that MI6 have acquired this list must precipitate the events of the film. His possession of the list is what gives him the leverage to precipitate the public inquiry.

But, given that he can and does blow up M's office whenever he likes, he doesn't need to do that just to "draw her out". If he just wants to kill her, he could have done that at any time. So he must want the inquiry to judge her and find her guilty.

So doesn't attacking M at the inquiry rather undermine his aim to see her humiliated and fired by that inquiry?

Rather he makes her point for her: that enemies can spring out of the shadows anywhere.

(Rather like the Doctor in "The Trial of a Time Lord", this is the sort of thing that usually ends up with the accused being cleared of all charges in spite of clear evidence of wrongdoings on the grounds that the baddies have proved them to be sort of right. About something or other.)

But what happens here? Cui bono?

After terrorist gunmen attack a Parliamentary inquiry and a disastrous attack on the London Underground (even if there isn't anyone but the driver on that tube), it would be astonishing not to see a huge increase in funds to our first and possibly only line of defence: the Secret Service. Just look at what happened post-September 11. Or Post-July 7. With M herself forced to retire by revelations – or even killed by the terrorists – surely it's all going to fall into the lap of her successor.

And indeed it does. It's just there's never that moment of revelation when he "does the evil voice".

(Actually, as Alex remarks, Fiennes spends most of the film in the nice three-piece suit he wore as Steed in the "The Avengers" movie. No, not the one that's taken more than a billion dollars at the box office. The other one. Along with M being taken for an "Emma"; the same psychiatrist, Nicholas Woodeson (playing Dr Darling/Dr Hall), along to do the evaluations; and the coda beginning with Bond on the roof of Whitehall in just about the place where Mother takes tea with Steed and Mrs Peel at the end of "The Avengers" it's kind of hard not to think of this as a takeover of one British spy franchise by another, rather more stylish, one. And "M" could stand for "Mother".)

Also, isn't Bond's ploy to lure Silva to Skyfall with "a trail of breadcrumbs that only Silva could follow" a bit redundant given that to the best of his knowledge only Silva is following them?

Of course the most surprisingly overlooked suspect is... Bond himself. With his own "death" as motive, and his previously established ability to walk in and out of M's secrets giving him means and opportunity, it's a shocking oversight that it isn't even mentioned that he might be the one doing this. Even if it was only for him to raise the issue and M say that she'd already thought of that.

It will take time, and a good many more viewings, before I can decide whether this, like "Casino Royale", is a truly great Bond movie. (Though I can tell at once that it's a huge improvement on "Quantum of Solace".) As with "Casino Royale", they've concentrated on telling an emotional story about Bond's relationships, and in Daniel Craig they have an actor well able to portray those emotions through minimalist quirks. They've also allowed him to have a little more fun with the character, and unlike Timothy Dalton in "The Living Daylights" (who you can see wince every time he has to deliver one) Craig clearly enjoys the occasional quip.

He also has a brilliant chemistry with his "Bond Girl", Judi Dench, who obviously steals the show and all of the expletives. She gets to write Bond's obituary, closer to the original book of "You Only Live Twice" than the Roald Dahl-penned movie (and doesn't this make it thrice if he's supposed to be the same Bond?). There's a case to be made that that big spoiler at the end here is as big a trauma for this Bond as the death of Tracy was for his earlier incarnation in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service".

Both of the other women – Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe – get to play a mix of strong and vulnerable, and also sexy, without (I hope I'm right) being demeaned by this. I found myself, against expectations, warming to Ben Whishaw as Q – I'd not liked him in "The Hour", though I had in "Richard II" – with a larger part than I'd expected too. (Madam!) Though only a moron would connect a known cyber-terrorist's laptop to the SIS mainframe and not expect what happens to happen. Javier Bardem as Silva is terrifying and also hilarious, often both at once (though I bet people thought the same of Mr Wint and Mr Kidd in "Diamonds are Forever" at the time too).

This is Daniel Craig's third decent Bond film... assuming you count "Happy and Glorious". Apparently, rumour has it, he has signed up for another two Bond flicks, possibly a two-parter. In which case, on the strength of this, I am delighted to agree with "Skyfall's" closing caption:



Jennie Rigg said...

"the familiar set up at the end of this film – M, Tanner, Moneypenny, the wood-panelled office – all feels as though this is bringing us back to the beginning"

That was the only bit I didn't like in an otherwise very enjoyable film - "yes yes you've had your fun with your female M but now we're going back to normal where men are the bosses and women are the secretaries". This is reinforced by Bond himself acting as the insidious voice of patriarchal society - "are you sure you want to be a field agent? It's not for everyone (i.e. girls)" - and gnawing away at Moneypenny's self esteem throughout the film.

However, I have solved this by adding a thirty second coda to the end of the film in my head.

INT: M's office. Jenny Agutter (or possibly Gemma Jones. Or Kathy Burke. Or Sophie Okenedo. Or hell, even Jo Brand. We have any number of BLOODY TALENTED actresses over 40 who are not boring cis white men) enters, takes one look at Rafe, and queries: "What the hell do you think you're doing in MY chair, you little oik? And why is that field agent sitting at my secretary's desk?"

The secretary, for preference, would be played by Julian Clary in full Joan Collins Fan Club garb...

Millennium Dome said...

Yes, it WAS a bit of a step backwards, wasn't it.

As I say, I was expecting Fienes to be unmasked as the villain.

And right up to that actual last scene I thought "Eve" saying she was taking a desk job meant SHE was the new M. Because you know, Naomie Harris is pretty awesome and has already played a god.

Matthew Kilburn said...

I expected Fiennes to be the villain too, at least early on, though as it continued it became fairly clear that he was going to be the new M.

MatGB said...

FWIW, the 007 Legends game out at the moment (which, um, isn't very good, unfortunately) puts Craig-Bond into the role in a lot of previous Bond adventures, the clear implication is that Royale and Solace are his first two missions, then all the other stuff happens, then Skyfall happens.

Whether that's the movie producer intention or not is unclear, but...

The Rush Blog said...

So . . . Naomie Harris goes from a field agent to a secretary. Why? So that the franchise can finally admit that a woman doesn't have what it takes to be a field agent like Bond? Sorry, but I can't get over this. And why do former MI-6 agents who go bad, always have to be foreign born?

Richard Booth said...

I too was expecting Fiennes to be a villain. And maybe he will still turn out to be; wouldn't it make a lot of sense for Quantum to at least *want* to plant someone at the head of the double-oh section, and, given what little we know about them so far, it's feasible that they *could* do this. I don't know if further Bond films will all be as Quantum free as Skyfall appears to be, but I hope - and vaguely suspect - not.