Saturday, 24 November 2012


There is a problem with watching a brand new Bond film. It's a slight one and, to be honest, it surely only affects people planning on writing up the final entry of a 23 film retrospective. But a problem, nonetheless: Skyfall is so shiny new, so fresh out of the box that, even having now seen it (twice), I haven't yet fully absorbed it. I grew up learning my 007 by rote, thanks mainly to endless TV repeats that forced fights and chases, quips and kisses inside my squashy formative brain. All those viewings accrete over the years; layer upon layer of familiarity and understanding build up and become a sturdy platform. I don't have that yet for Skyfall and the fact that it's not just sat on the shelf with the other DVDs rankles me. Suddenly, my many years experience are gone, my gun hand shakes; yet here I am pushed into the field, too soon.

To be honest after a single viewing, I was a little underwhelmed. Perhaps this was only to be expected. Hype and expectations were at an all time high and I was caught off guard I think by Skyfall's sombre tone. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, because there is plenty to love. The photography is beautiful, the direction is thoughtful. Craig's Bond is a thing of wonder: vulnerable yet also granite hard, brutal yet charming. Great performances from Dench and Bardem and brilliantly likeable turns from Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris to usher in the new regime. Poor Bérénice Marlohe doesn't get much screen time, but in her scene with Bond in the casino she is absolutely excellent - not many Bond women get such good treatment. 

The fight with Patrice is very good indeed, shot in profile, silhouetted against a mesmerising jellyfish light effect, it suddenly, breathtakingly, pivots as the hitman slips out of the window. Silva's introduction is possibly the greatest of any villain: an incredible single shot where the terrorist simply walks the length of the room, recounting his rat story. His 'lair', an abandoned city, is fantastic - surreal and dream-like whilst still utterly credible.

Best of all is the way Bond's character is explored. "Sometimes the old ways are the best," he says when Eve queries his use of the cut-throat razor - but it's only much later that Kincade says the same thing (about another blade) and we realise the old man is the source of Bond's sentiment. Similarly the riddle of Skyfall is dangled before us with the word-association game before being slyly answered by a tracking shot up the drive of a remote house in the Highlands. The retreat to Scotland reveals so much but without being obvious or crass. Unable to defeat Silva, Bond escapes into his own past to find what he needs, recovering his aim and - briefly - even the ghosts of his parents, recast as M and Kincade. The loss of her, his mother figure, leaves Bond renewed as an orphan, ready for adoption by MI6 once more. The final moments of the film are a delicious treat as the original tableau of M's office from DRNO is reconstructed before our eyes. But for all that, I was missing something as I left the cinema - it needed to enjoy itself a little more, needed (I thought) an injection of cock-sure swagger.

I had assumed that Skyfall would mean a return to business as usual for Bond. Casino Royale and QOS demolished the franchise and rebuilt it from scratch, eschewing familiar (and exhausted) elements whilst necessary repairs were performed. After DAD these two films almost had a self-punishing quality, as if the franchise were flagellating itself for past sins. I liked and admired that - it was cathartic; the Bond series was bravely taking its medicine and getting better. But the return of the gun-barrel sequence at the end of QOS seemed to signify that this process had been completed and penance served. Perhaps inspired by Bond's appearance at the London Olympics I fully expected Skyfall to throttle down on the self-doubt, both for the franchise and for Bond himself. Although the film is full of confidence, it is at pains to show in those last few moments that things are only now getting back to normal and a lot of effort is spent shuffling the new personnel into position.

So I went and I watched it again and I realised that the biggest problem was me. I had been too wound up to enjoy it properly, too eager to analyse it. I have enjoyed looking at these movies again, finding new things and having fresh thoughts, but along the way I had ruined myself for a new Bond film. I had trained myself to scrutinise instead of just enjoying it for what it is: a stylish couple of hours of fun and thrills.

I did better the second time, helped along by my fellow audience members. It was a daytime screening, and the theatre was maybe a third full: a mixture of retired people and students, roughly half men, half women, and each of them had paid just six bucks to get in. A casual audience it seemed to me, killing a few hours in a not very busy day; probably not obsessive fanboys who had agonised during the gap between UK and US release dates. It seemed a safe bet that these laid-back Texans weren't watching riddled with homesickness, desperately over-invested and hoping that they weren't about to be let down or shown up. I wanted to know what Bond meant to them, how much they thought he represented tiny distant rain-sodden Britain.

I got my answer watching Skyfall with them. They loved it. They laughed throughout, at almost everything, giggling like school girls in fact during Javier Bardem's first scene. They cheered when the DB5 turned up and whooped when it opened fire. It delighted me that people who were just passing by could enjoy Bond so much. I was swept along and it was wonderful; Skyfall was wonderful. The lights came up and they shuffled off, smiles on their faces. I didn't linger in the shadows. I went with them, out into the bright November sun.

*   *   *

Pre-Credits Sequence: Wonderful first shot of Bond, great bike chase, and a nifty train-top fight, complete with a YOLT style denouement - all rather wasted by making up most of the trailer.  

Theme: Adele's theme is what we might call 'retro' Bond now but that's not a problem. The Bondian chords are all present and correct and the lyric is well above average - but the song itself never takes off. Or rather, it circles round and round but never lands. Pick whichever plane metaphor you prefer, the fact is the song doesn't ever get where it seems to be heading: a roaring triumphant Barry/Bassey-esque crescendo. Having said that, it has an addictive quality: it crawls into your brain and lingers there. And once it has been paired with the opening titles it simply becomes marvellous. Klienmen returns to take charge of the visuals and the result is unusually macabre, with blood, skulls, grave stones and deer heads all featuring. It looks absolutely gorgeous and, although we don't get the pleasing linear narrative of Klienmen's earlier titles, there is something much more complex and ultimately satisfying. The hypnotic song shares a fevered dream-like quality with the images and the combined effect makes these the best Bond titles ever. Yielding new meanings with repeated viewings, they reach back into the past (showing Silva enduring his horrific injuries) and finally present us with looming portents of the future as the lyrics and images combine thunderously 'at Skyfall'.  

Deaths: Absolutely no idea. I wasn't even counting. Maybe when the blu-ray comes out I'll sit down and work it out, but I hope I don't. 

Licence to Kill: Okay, I can't actually resist. Just tallying it up in my head it might be around... loads. Twenty plus maybe. 

Helicopters: 1. So, there should be a direct correlation between the craziness of a Bond film and the number of exploding helicopters it features. But there isn't. Whacko Moonraker has none, whilst dour old-school FRWL does. But generally it holds. Brosnan racks up 7 in four films, whilst Lazenby, Dalton and Craig can only muster 1 between them. It's this one. 

Shags: Two. Neither of them, thankfully, Moneypenny or M. It is entirely possible that Bond and Eve did do some sex whilst in Macau, but it is explicitly not referenced at all, so we can decide for ourselves. A much cleverer 'have-you-cake-and-eat-it' solution than the one they thought up for DAD

Crimes Against Women: Poor old Séverine does not have a good time but, apart from her backstory, nothing happens to her just because she's a woman. Moneypenny is shown to be effective and resourceful, even if she does get teased for shooting Bond. Dench's M, possibly the greatest Bond woman of them all, gets a wonderful farewell.

Casual Racism: Insidiously, all the goodies are British and all the baddies are foreign, whilst ambiguously good/bad Severine is played by French/Chinese/Cambodian Bérénice Marlohe. 

Out of Time: Non-Brits might not be aware, but in 2012 the UK has been basically governed by public inquiries and committees like the one that grills M here. But 2012 is also the year we all stayed home and enjoyed/endured the Queen's Jubilee, the London Olympics, Andy Murray's Wimbledon final and so on - in short, for many Brits there was more than the usual amount of running around on the Underground or staycationing in Scotland. Throw in Silva's not so subtle nods to Wikileaks/Julian Assange and this couldn't be any more contemporary if it had this week's lottery numbers in it. 

Fashion Disasters: Silva's beige prison outfit is a crime in itself. Craig pulls of a beardy Bond (just about). But more often than not I found myself wowed by the outfits. Bond's suits match the immaculate levels of Goldfinger. The dresses, particularly the gold one Eve wears in the casino are beautiful. And say and what you like about IMAX but it really showed off the weave on some sumptuous knitted-silk ties.  

Most Shameless Advertising: There was a great deal fuss made about Bond drinking Heineken but for heaven's sake, beer is hardly the most unlikely product endorsement 007 could make is it? After all, it is alcoholic. And it is very a much a tiny beery drop in an ocean of booze, as this wonderfully comprehensive guide explains. The green bottles are blatantly brandished by Bond and Tanner, but there's something more shameless about an advert that masquerades as justifiable dialogue: chasing after the train in Turkey Eve swerves to avoid a sudden obstacle and M asks her what it was. "VW Beetles I think," she replies unnecessarily. 

Eh?: It hardly matters, but most of the story is nonsense. Why does Silva plan to get captured and escape? If he has the resources to blow up MI6 and everything else, surely he can fly to the UK himself and kill M with ease whenever he likes? We're told that Silva has planned his revenge so meticulously that he has anticipated his capture, but how can he organise things like tube trains turning up on schedule, or dictate the time and place that a Select Committee will meet? How on Earth does he get so far out of his cell that he can take out the guard before he's shot? Who are the men who assist him in London? How does he communicate with them or plan with them so efficiently that they are walking along carrying a police disguise at exactly the right moment? >> How does the Shanghai assassination work? Patrice shoots him dead from across the street, but nobody reacts when it happens. If they are all in on the hit then why pay Patrice millions of euros to do it?The target is already alone in a room with Séverine and her heavies - if she wants this guy dead she could do it herself. >> The committee that calls M before it would appear to be the Intelligence and Security Committee - but in real life this is a parliamentary body, i.e. all those involved are either MPs or Lords. Clair Dowar is definitely an MP, but what is Mallory? Surely no sitting member of either House could be made head of MI6?  >> Not really something that doesn't make sense, but the thought of Bond and M stopping off at a Little Chef on the A9 is as unavoidable as it is bizarre. 

Worst Line: "I always hated this place," says Bond aloud to nobody as his childhood home goes up in flames, as if he were a character in some cheesy action movie. Similarly, his, "It just occurs to me that we haven't been properly introduced," to Moneypenny at the end feels very leaden.

Best Line: Difficult to remember any stone cold one-liners despite lots of good dialogue. Kudos to Dame Judi for immaculately dropping the series' first F-bomb. 

Worst Bond Moment: The death of his parents - astonishing that we've only now stopped to consider it.  

Best Bond Moment: Adjusting his cuffs; kicking the gun off the floor and catching it; taking out Silva's goons on the island. Then we get wonderful images: Bond stood beside his DB5 with glinting musical sting or, even better, standing in the boat on his way to the casino. Craig's been working on the standing and has developed a signature pose that is repeated all through the film: legs planted firmly apart, shoulders back (of course), left hand thrust into his trouser pocket, the right arm loose but ready. Once you notice it though he seems to be doing it all the time. The dazzling, amazing quality of his Bond is how he comes alive when he speaks to women. Normally blunt, brusque and cold he transforms in to a creature of charm and twinkle. Remember the receptionists in Casino Royale and QOS? We get the same here when he talks to Séverine in the Casino and it's wonderful to watch. 

Overall: A very good Bond film that manages to be about the loss of his parents without hitting us over the head with it. My favourite moment is the shot of the house that finally reveals the significance of 'Skyfall' - understated but so important and everything clicks into place. Nods to the franchise's past are subtle and pleasing, and a lot of the story has an authentically Fleming-esque flavour. I suspect that, rather like the Macallan, Skyfall will get better and better with age.    

James Bond Will Return: with pleasure.

1 comment:

  1. Another well considered review and a pleasure to read, thanks