Musings on Bond at 50: Skyfall

Posted: 20 March 2013 in entertainment, film
Tags: , , , ,

The (00)7th highest-grossing film of all time, the highest-grossing film in the UK and the highest-grossing James Bond film. Skyfall is a $1.1 billion phenomenon for the Golden Anniversary.

Skyfall - poster quad

007 reporting for duty.

Mindful of the critical drubbing heaped upon Quantum of Solace and the delays forced upon them by the financial woes of MGM, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson pulled out all the stops to celebrate Bond’s 50th anniversary with the innovative, intriguing and inventive Skyfall. Set in a universe of public inquiries, extraordinary renditions and a MI6 accountable to the government, Skyfall frequently doesn’t feel like a James Bond film at all. The days of grandiose sets, pussy-stroking villains and invisible Aston Martins are over.

Skyfall is the closest that the Bond series has ever come to a five-act Shakespeare tragedy as Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes helms an arc of Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Dénouement featuring psychologically damaged characters James Bond, M and Raoul Silva.

Mendes was hired at the behest of Daniel Craig, who had worked with him on Road to Perdition, and this proved to be the masterstroke that underpinned the success of Skyfall. A fan of Ian Fleming’s original novels Mendes proves himself to be the most capable and attuned director to helm a Bond film since Terence Young and Peter Hunt in the 1960s. Mendes’ use of parallel action keeps Skyfall moving at a breathless pace unseen in any other entry in the series and allows for an almost Hitchcockian escalation of the tension due to the audience being able to see the entirety of the action whereas the characters on screen can’t.

I have only one question. Why not stay dead? There’s no shame in saying you’ve lost a step.

Skyfall - Bond ShanghaiMuch of the inspiration for Skyfall lies in Ian Fleming’s latter James Bond novels where 007 found himself increasingly prone to depressive interludes as he questioned the morality of his chosen profession. Skyfall contains particular parallels with You Only Live Twice as both find a physically and mentally compromised James Bond despatched on a near-impossible mission to the Far East by M, who’s well aware of 007’s poor condition and writes the agent’s obituary during the course of the story. Indeed the portion of Bond’s obituary viewed in Skyfall is taken directly from the one Fleming penned for You Only Live Twice with the reference to Japan replaced by Turkey for the film.

For the first time in the EON Productions series the passing of years for the actor playing 007 is reflected in events on-screen and brings in a new sense of realism. Gone is the newly-commissioned, arrogant and headstrong 007 of Casino Royale. In his place sits an ageing, disillusioned and discontented shadow warrior. Bond seems to have aged 20 years whilst no one was paying attention. Both allies and enemies view him as an increasingly obsolete tool in an era of cyberterrorism and stateless villains. It’s a shame that this approach of acknowledging Bond’s passing years wasn’t applied to Roger Moore’s 007. Audience credibility was stretched beyond breaking point to expect them to believe that an actor in his mid-50s could throw himself around like a man in his mid-30s. In the original Dr. NoDie Another Day timeline it was an unspoken rule that Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan were all the same man. Bond remained eternally in his 30s or 40s whatever the appearance of the actor portraying him. When the time comes for Craig to bow out as 007 it will be interesting to see if the timeline is rebooted once again or whether it’s presumed the new Bond is implied to be the same man as before.

M’s quoting from Tennyson’s Ulysses during the inquiry scene perfectly summarises the nature of Craig’s 007: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Like the hero of the poem Bond is continually restless, yearning for adventure. Far less muscular and bulky than in his debut of Casino Royale, over the course of Skyfall Daniel Craig takes 007 from being a borderline burn-out case to an enthused warrior once again eager for new adventures. Subjected to a series of emotional and physical traumas Bond is determined to prove that he’s still capable of performing his duties simply because pretty much everyone else believes he is no longer up to the task. Whilst Craig is once again afforded the opportunity to delve into the damaged psyche of Bond he was able to inject some of the humour he’d felt has been missing from the series of late. Much of the reintroduced humour comes from the interaction between 007 and the new Q and thankfully it’s miles away from the wince-inducing punning that was a hallmark of the Moore and Brosnan eras.

Welcome to the new MI6. I’m your Quartermaster.

Skyfall - Bond and QReplacing the legendary Desmond Llewelyn was never going to be easy task and most likely one Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson had been shying away from given the absence of the character from the first two installments of the Daniel Craig era, a fact that the actor had publicly lamented. Whilst there have been six Bonds there has only been a single Q. Peter Burton was never referred to as Q in Dr. No and John Cleese in Die Another Day doesn’t count as being Q, he’s simply R on an ego trip. No. Seriously. He doesn’t count.

It was reasoned that Q in the 21st century would be a techno geek who views the likes of 007 as an anachronism and acclaimed Shakespearean actor Ben Whishaw triumphantly delivers a new Q for a new era. Some of the best moments in Skyfall come from the interactions of Bond and Q as they begin to forge a relationship of trust and respect. Whishaw is given a vast subterranean Q Branch to preside over and it’s to be hoped in future he commands 007 to “pay attention” as he imparts details of a mind numbing technical nature.

Slightly fudged in comparison to the arrival of Q is the debut of Miss Eve Moneypenny. The choice of Lois Maxwell as the original Miss Moneypenny is another example of the perfect casting that Terence Young enacted at the dawn of the series. An excellent flirtatious foil for Connery and Moore, Maxwell has been a hard act to follow ever since she departed in 1985’s A View To A Kill. Skyfall saw the introduction of a fourth actor in the role, complete with a backstory that is at odds with Ian Fleming’s original vision of Moneypenny. As was the case with M and Bond, Fleming viewed Moneypenny as former Royal Navy and in support of this backstory Maxwell appeared in uniform in the film of You Only Live Twice when she was aboard a British submarine. The new backstory has Naoime Harris’ Moneypenny initially operating in the field with 007 and even shooting him by accident (something for which Craig’s Bond is far more forgiving than Connery’s would probably have ever been). The filmmakers attempted to introduce a sense of mystery to the character by only referring to her by her first name but the revelation of Eve’s true identity doesn’t hold a torch to the impact of M’s death.

Did she send you after me knowing you were not ready, knowing you were likely to die?

Skyfall - MalloryFor the first time the denouncement of a Bond film hinges upon a character moment not an action sequence and Dench’s final moments as M doesn’t leave a dry eye in the audience. The departure of Judi Dench after 7 films and 17 years is quite simply the most surprising, audacious and compelling moment ever seen in the series. Suddenly 007’s universe is more dangerous than ever before. No one is safe. M’s demise was the final scene that Dench shot for Skyfall and by all accounts it was an extremely emotional period on set for both her and Daniel Craig. Despite previous rumination as to whether Dench should have carried over into the rebooted timeline the fact remains that she did and she delivered a trinity of performances that are worthy of eternal praise. Ralph Fiennes has massive shoes to fill as the new M.

Given the themes of treachery that had run through Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace the presence of a traitorous ally for Silva within the British government seemed a likely possibility and much of the smart money was doubtless upon Gareth Mallory, the bureaucrat sent to force M into retirement. The casting of acting heavyweight Ralph Fiennes signaled that Mallory was a key role but his appointment as the new M was the second biggest surprise of Skyfall. Screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan are to be applauded for the character developments that pepper the film and none more so than those accorded to Mallory as he’s taken from being a seeming cold-hearted bastard out to bring down M and Bond to being the new head of MI6. The moment that transforms Mallory from adversary to ally comes when he more or less tells the chair of the inquiry into MI6’s recent performance to basically shut-the-fuck-up and let M actually speak. Mallory believes M deserves better than petty haranguing and Fiennes handles the moment of subtle support brilliantly. He’s also pretty useful in a gunfight. Mallory is effectively a cautionary tale of who Bond could become if he ever takes a desk job.

An instance of Doctor Who-style messing with timelines comes in connection with the appearance of the classic gadget laden Aston Martin DB5 as first seen in 1964’s Goldfinger. That it’s the same vehicle from the Connery classic is explicitly implied through the appearance of the ejector seat button and the built-in frontal machine guns. But should Craig’s Bond possess this vehicle? In his timeline he’s never confronted Auric Goldfinger. Or has he? The 007 Legends game released at the same time as Skyfall re-imagines Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Moonraker, Licence To Kill and Die Another Day as adventures for Craig’s James Bond. So by that maxim the timeline for Craig could be Casino Royale/Quantum of Solace followed by versions of the original 20 films where M was the Judi Dench interpretation, Desmond Llewelyn was Q but there was no Miss Moneypenny.

Less complicated than the presence of the DB5 is Adele’s bold and powerful theme song. Deservedly winning the 2012 Academy Award for Best Original Song, Skyfall was enthusiastically received by fans and the general public alike and ranks alongside Goldfinger. Nobody Does It Better and A View To A Kill as one of the very best theme songs. There is already a groundswell amongst fans for the singer-songwriter to return for Bond 24.

How much do you know about fear?

Skyfall - SeverineShanghai was chosen as a location for Skyfall as its fiery neon signs and leviathan glass skyscrapers provided a exotic contrast to the cold and stark London locations used so extensively throughout the rest of the film. In a typical Bond sleight-of-hand fashion many of the scenes set in Shanghai were not filmed on location and Daniel Craig never set foot in China. Establishing aerial shots were shot by a second unit after they received almost unheard of permission to borrow a helicopter from the Chinese government. Ascot Racecourse stood in for Shanghai Pudong International Airport, the entrance to London’s Broadgate Tower doubled as the entrance of the skyscraper that Bond infiltrates and the Virgin Active Pool in London’s Canary Wharf stood in as Bond’s hotel pool in Shanghai. The interior and exterior of the Golden Dragon casino was created on exterior and interior stages at Pinewood Studios and the world-famous 007 Stage housed a recreation of a Shanghai skyscraper for the filming of the fight between Bond and the mercenary Patrice (played by Ola Rapace, the former husband of Noomi Rapace famous for her role as Lisbeth Salander). The frantic silhouetted fight between Bond and Rapace set against a gigantic neon jellyfish is an astonishing visual highlight of the entire 007 series and it’s a crime that Roger Deakins wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for his breadth of work on Skyfall.

The Far East locales provide a colourful and glamorous backdrop for Bérénice Marlohe’s Sévérine, the only female character within the narrative of Skyfall who comes close to enacting the functions of a traditional Bond girl. But in the midst of all their innovation and experimentation the filmmakers don’t know what to with Sévérine and her treatment and fate leave a nasty taste in the mouth. Yes, Bond is often cold-hearted, vicious and cruel, but always to his enemies not to his friends and allies. His role is to protect the innocent, abused and subjugated, yet he comes away as much of an abusive manipulator of Sévérine as Raoul Silva. Granted the Bond films have never been vehicles for social commentary and never will be but when Bond treats women as badly as the villain then something is seriously amiss. Sévérine’s death screams out as the screenwriters not having a clue as to what to do with her other then not wanting her to end up in Bond’s arms for the closing credits. Perhaps it’s time Daniel Craig had a little word with the producers as he hasn’t ended up with a girl for the fade-out in any of his three outings.

Just look at you, chasing spies…England…the Empire…MI6…so old fashioned.

Skyfall - Bond and SilvaAs always tropes from previous Bond outings seep into the narrative of any new entry. The plot line of the MI6 building being damaged during a terrorist attack comes from The World Is Not Enough – as does Bond nursing an injury to his right shoulder. Licence To Kill saw the first use of Q coding a weapon to Bond’s palm print and a baddy’s failed attempt to shoot the agent. Pierce Brosnan’s debut of GoldenEye featured a former MI6 agent as the chief villain. The trick of the Bonds is often to tell the same story each time but with new names and locales, prime examples being The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. Often audiences crave the familiar despite their protestations to the contrary. Since 1999‘s The World Is Not Enough the initial mixing up of the elements of Bond has primarily lain in the hands of screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade with their material usually receiving a final polish by the likes of Paul Haggis, as was the case for Daniel Craig’s first two films. Skyfall proved to be the fifth and final film for Purvis and Wade as they were joined by frequent Mendes collaborator John Logan (Gladiator, Star Trek: Nemesis) who given his background was likely responsible for the additional gravitas and literary allusions present in the film. Logan has been appointed as the sole writer for the forthcoming Bond 24 and Bond 25 after pitching a two film storyline to producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson. Interestingly Logan has stated in interviews that he feels that Bond should always battle Blofeld. Is there a chance that rights issues have been sorted since the death of Kevin McClory and the return of SPECTRE and its pussy-cat stroking chief is in the offing?

Some men are coming to kill us. We are going to kill them first.

Skyfall - Bond GlencoeIn a classic 007 adventure it’s the villain’s lair that is consumed in an apocalyptic inferno but in a subversion of the tried and tested formula that is typical of Skyfall it’s Bond’s lair that is torn asunder. The visceral Sam Peckinpah-style siege finale sees the destruction of Bond’s childhood home of Skyfall where his parents Andrew Bond and Monique Delacroix Bond are buried. It’s an unusual Bond film that actually adds to the agent’s mythos rather than cribbing relentlessly from it for inspiration. The concept of Skyfall as developed by the screenwriters fits in perfectly with the character as created by Fleming. It makes perfect sense that the never-looking-back Bond would have no desire to cling onto the past. He’s about living for the moment as he knows each one could be his last.

The presence of Kincade, the gamekeeper of Skyfall as portrayed by Albert Finney, allows a rare glimpse into the psyche of 007 as Kincade relates how Bond transitioned from being a boy into a man upon learning of the death of his parents. Bond’s experiences in the tunnels beneath Skyfall parallel the emotional journey taken by Bruce Wayne when he discovers the Batcave beneath Wayne Manor. Not for the first time since the rebooting of the series this new style of 007 invites comparison with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (though Skyfall had been completed by the time The Dark Knight Rises was released). In many ways Kincade could be viewed as the 21st century Bond universe’s equivalent of Alfred Pennyworth given his protection of the young boy James. Casino Royale and Batman Begins are comparable as they both reboot their respective franchises with character-driven tales that attempt to wipe out bad memories of gadget-laden predecessors replete with ill-judged humour (Die Another Day and Batman & Robin respectively).

Interestingly Mendes gave serious thought to approaching Sean Connery, the very first James Bond, to portray Kincade but gave up on the idea as he realised it would be an instance of stunt casting that would undermine the tone of the film. Kincade’s “Welcome to Scotland” as he blasts a mercenary with a sawn-off shotgun would have been a great scene for Connery though.

With his fixation on chaos and revenge, overly elaborate plans of escape from authoritarian custody and horrific facial deformity, Raoul Silva, the grand villain of Skyfall, owes more than a little to Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight. Complete with a startling mane of blond hair, fey manners and a mocking tone, Silva is a new breed of Bond baddy as he goes head-to-head with 007 intellectually and physically. From his monologue delivering entrance to the final showdown with M, Javier Bardem delivers an electrifying performance as the vengeful Silva. Like Shakespeare’s Richard III he’s fully aware that he’s the villain of the piece and yearns for his revenge against M to be complete so he can die and find peace. Despite a justifiably acclaimed performance by Bardem and displaying all the essentials of a great Bond villain (namely arrogance, obsession and a fatal underestimation of 007) Silva isn’t the best Bond villain ever. In the pantheon of the villainous greats he ranks fourth below Auric Goldfinger (Goldfinger), Hugo Drax (Moonraker) and Franz Sanchez (Licence To Kill).

A fundamental flaw with the plot of Skyfall is that Silva’s scheme, however explosive, energetic and elaborate, is just too ordinary. M’s decline through humiliation, disgrace and death is a style of plot that is more suited to the likes of Spooks, NCIS or 24 rather than the universe of 007. No more nefarious schemes such as irradiating Fort Knox to raise the value of gold, nuclear terrorism and instruments of Armageddon being unleashed from beyond the atmosphere and beneath the oceans. No one wishes for a return to the outlandish, sluggish, leviathan-like productions (replete with non-existent characterisation, pain-inducing quips and wooden acting) in the style of You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker but the series is clearly lacking the flamboyance, grandeur and escapism that ran through the series in the 1960s.

From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service demonstrated that realistic characters can be effectively placed within extraordinary narratives. Ken Adam’s gargantuan semi-futuristic sets now almost seem the norm in this age of mammoth skyscrapers, malls and board rooms, so why not give Bond an opulent stage on which to perform on once again?

For all its faults and over-praise Skyfall is without doubt a bold entry in the series, an experiment that paid incredible dividends for the Golden Anniversary of the cinematic 007 and aptly takes the feel of the series back to the the Golden Age of the 1960s. Q is in the basement making his lethal toys, Moneypenny resides in her office guarding a familiar studded leather door and Bond has entered M’s inner sanctum to await new orders. Skyfall would have been a perfect finale to the series but new adventures await James Bond 007.

From Russia With Love
2 Goldfinger
3 Casino Royale
4 Skyfall
5 Licence To Kill
6 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
7 GoldenEye
8 The Living Daylights
9 The Spy Who Loved Me
10 Thunderball
11 Dr. No
12 Quantum of Solace
13 For Your Eyes Only
14 You Only Live Twice
15 Tomorrow Never Dies
16 The World Is Not Enough
17 Die Another Day
18 Octopussy
19 Moonraker
20 Diamonds Are Forever
21 A View To A Kill
22 Live And Let Die
23 The Man with the Golden Gun


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