Skyfall had a very peculiar job to do, as Bond films go. It had to be a transitional movie, a reboot mid-Bond – it would add a new Q to the mythos, bring a new Moneypenny into the frame, and kill off the M that had been a rock of the Bond movies for the last 20 years (yes, really), writing out Judi Dench’s tough female head of MI6, who’d joined the world of the Bond movies in 1995 with Pierce Brosnan’s first outing, Goldeneye. At the same time, it actually had to make Daniel Craig’s take on the central character more accessible than he’d been in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. While Craig had shrugged off the horror of some fans at the mortal offence of his being blond and proved a tough, gritty and particularly hard action-focused Bond, his brooding performance which gave little away had a tendency to make the mid and late sections of his movies relatively taciturn affairs, despite having one of Bond’s truest, most scarring love affairs to play – the Vesper arc. So Skyfall had to bring the spy in from the cold a little, and give Craig’s Bond a little more of a vocal presence.
It’s a notable peculiarity that Judi Dench’s first and last roles in the Bond franchise share a distinct similarity in terms of the central themes, plot and central villain. In both Goldeneye and Skyfall, the mastermind is actually a former MI6 hot-shot, disillusioned with simply having a license to kill. Where Sean Bean’s Alec Trevelyan had a B in his bonnet most particularly for Bond, but more generally for the Secret Service’s ability to betray its own and its countries allies, Javier Bardem, almost unrecognisable as Raoul Silva, claims a special place in M’s affections, even though she for her part finds the idea deluded, and wants to punish her most particularly for her arrogance, her misguided actions and her failure to protect her assets. Trevelyan and Silva are two sides of the same basic coin, though Silva seems the more unstable of the two, making Skyfall an edgier watch – there’s more of the Joker’s unpredictability about Silva’s actions than Trevelyan could ever muster with his relatively unimaginative, straight to the point, shoot-it-and-be-done agent’s mindset. Of the two, you get the distinct sense that Silva has spent more time dancing around with his underpants on his head, dreaming up evil mastermind plots. His computer-based villainy though really turns Skyfall into an even watch. It’s basically two half-movies jammed a little uncomfortably together.
The first half looks like it’s really going somewhere, even if you’re never entirely sure where – Bond being shot, recuperating in a kind of Leonard Cohen miseryfest-on-sea, the attack on M’s authority in Westminster, then the explosion, Bond essentially doing a bit of Connery-style prannying about on boats, in dens of iniquity and up in skyscrapers failing to get information from assassins in hugely protracted fight scenes – it’s all going somewhere but there’s little getting away from the fact that the scenes with M are much more entertaining than those with Craig’s Bond for much of the first half of the movie. Ben Whishaw’s new Q too is delivered with a pitch-perfect geekiness that makes him a natural successor to Desmond Llewelyn, and steers away from the more open comedy of, for instance, John Cleese’s R.
Ohhhh but then comes the meeting between Bond and Silva and it’s a thing of exquisite beauty. Silva in his edgy, flirty, dancing, quiet flamboyance brings out the best in Craig’s Bond so far – the almost silence, with a quip here or there, an occasional smirk, a line or movement to state an opposition with body and soul, an utter negation of everything that Silva believes is unique or special or powerful about himself. The section from their first meeting to the attack on the hearing, to the faintly ridiculous but very Bondian tube train escape feels oddly like it should be the final run-up to the climax, and so it should be – it’s the denouement of the story we’ve seen so far, and as far as the modern story is concerned, it should be the climactic conflict that ends with explosions, the death of the villain, the triumph of Bond and a quip to camera. Game over, democracy lives to be corrupted another day.
From the modern story, after the attack of the hearing, Skyfall goes into full retro mode, becoming a simple siege story, but one that delivers old-style Bond that makes the fans punch the air, and backstory like we’ve never had before. In one half-movie, it manages to turn the most taciturn Bond in history into the Bond about whom we know the most. We go into the home and the history that make Bond the man he is, his family home, redolent with his mother and father’s influences, and we meet Kincade, the Bonds’ gamekeeper, played with bluff and self-possession by Albert Finney. It’s a bizarre turn for the movie to take, but it’s so much a love letter to Bonds of the past that you genuinely don’t care that it makes no sense. It’s a base under siege story, and it shows both Bond and M as they really are, beyond all the high tech and the international espionage – two resourceful agents making war out of lightbulbs and gunpowder.
Oh and of course one kickass car, that when you see it makes you dance a happy little dance of Bond-joy.
The second half of the movie makes sense only in terms of Silva’s obsession, which is a thin strand on which to hang a whole half-movie, but again, the joy of what that second half contains, and the power with which it rounds out the Craig interpretation of Bond, mean you go with it, suspending logic, suspending disbelief, and buying into everything that it gives, everything that it puts on the screen in ways that fans had longed to see for fifty years, from Doctor No to Skyfall – the peaks behind the mystique, behind the suave superagent to the child hiding in priest’s holes, crying, changing, becoming the man with the potential to do what only Bond can do. It’s a great way to celebrate five decades of Bond on film, and it also serves as a brilliant finale to Judi Dench’s two decades as M, having her fight her final battle with the ‘Cold War dinosaur’ she had no trouble sending out to die.
In a strange way, the end of Skyfall is its most retro element, with the brand new M, Ralph Fiennes’ Gareth Mallory feeling like a chip off the blocks of Bernard Lee and Robert Brown, establishing a continuity with the world of Bonds past. With a new Miss Moneypenny established in the outer office, Skyfall puts in place a way forward that feels almost like a retconning to the days of Connery and Moore.
With Spectre due this year, it will be fascinating to see what legacy Skyfall has left on the Bond franchise, beyond some stellar performances, from Dench, Craig, Bardem and Whishaw most particularly, and how the fiftieth anniversary Bond has redefined the legend.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk