Film Review: Skyfall
I have never been a huge fan of the James Bond films. I can obtain some scattered pleasures from the kitschy classic films, but I can only watch the character’s escapades through various exotic locales and brain-dead cardboard women before my mind starts to wander. However, this all changed with Bond’s 21st outing – 2006′s Casino Royale. For the first time, the script made Bond (now played by Daniel Craig) feel like an actual person, no doubt due in part to the success of the more grounded Bourne films. And the Bond girl, Vesper (Eva Green), seemed to have more than penis on the brain. They were still stylised characters, but the emotional beats rang true. That was the first Bond film that I really loved.
Sadly, 2008′s dismal Quantum of Solace ruined much of my Bond good will with its forgettable plot and incoherent action. The key question when approaching Skyfall was: which of the previous Craig films would it most resemble?
The good news is that Skyfall falls firmly into the Casino Royale camp. It’s not as good as that film, but it’s a return to form after Quantum. Crucially, the action scenes (always the primary concern in a Bond film) are clearly and excitingly staged, and the entire film is beautifully shot. Cinematographer Roger Deakins has collaborated with director Sam Mendes previously, on Jarhead (which features stunning imagery) and Revolutionary Road (which is possibly beautiful but all I can recall is the incessant, mind-numbing screaming).
Skyfall opens with a spectacular action sequence in Istanbul, complete with a roof-top motorcycle chase. After this cracking start, the pacing slows considerably as we wait for Bond to return to the action. This is arguably the weakest section of the film, but thankfully, the pace picks up again once Bond sets off for Shanghai. The Shanghai section features the film’s most breath-taking sequence – a back-lit fight in front of a giant neon screen. It’s a truly remarkable piece of cinema.
Another key components of a Bond film is the Bond Girls, although they are apparently now officially called ‘Bond Women,’ in a rather lame attempt to hide the franchise’s hopelessly outdated approach to gender. This is easily the film’s weakest point, although not cripplingly so. There are two Bond women here and the script gives neither of them much to do. They are certainly nowhere near as interesting as Vesper from Casino Royale for example, although both actresses (Naomi Harris & Berenice Marlohe) do a fine job with the material they are given. The script is far more concerned with the character of M, played by the always excellent Judi Dench; she gets more to do here than she has in previous installments.
The final key component – the villain – is Raoul Silva, played with camp relish by Javier Bardem. In one of the film’s more entertaining scenes, Silva captures Bond and instead of torturing him, attempts to unsettle him by stroking his chest and flirting with him. Bond’s response shows that he’s not as homophobic as Silva assumes, rendering him momentarily powerless. But what makes Silva a great villain is his back story; (minor spoilers) he was also an MI6 agent, reporting to M, and he was essentially used like a puppet and discarded. He is now hell-bent on vengeance against the mother (M) who he perceives to have abandoned him.
Skyfall is fascinating in the way that it uses its villain to make the James Bond character more interesting. Bond himself is something of a puppet, and his past is not dissimilar to Silva’s. The difference is that Silva refuses to accept the callous treatment he received, whereas Bond reports back for duty, no matter what MI6 do to him. Thus, the script makes Silva’s motivations more relatable than Bond’s, asking the question: if you were treated like this by someone you ‘belong to,’ which of these emotional responses would you be more likely have?
The film never dwells on this comparison, but it lurks there throughout, and the more we learn about what happened to Silva (and the more relatable his motivations become), Bond’s psychology begins to seem more and more bizarre. It reminded me of the character of Brody on Homeland - another fascinating character who is a puppet to all around him and who cannot muster up the strength to break free. Why does Bond accept his treatment? He appears to have little sense of self outside of MI6; he is nothing without his job, and in that sense, the script presents him as being seriously emotionally deficient. This is rich territory for a giant blockbuster, and is only touched upon through the juxtaposition between Bond and Silva, but it makes Bond’s character much more interesting than he usually is.
Skyfall is a slick, gripping (albeit bloated) action film, and it shows that the 007 franchise isn’t close to running out of steam. Hopefully the next instalment will retain this film’s curiosity in the psychology of Bond, and grant its Bond Women some complexity as well.