(Sam Mendes, 2012)
If Casino Royale (2006) saw stalwart producers Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson et al successfully reining-in their overripe franchise, clipping its wings and brushing away the dilated puffiness of the Brosnan era, then Skyfall (2012) is something of a caged beast fighting to break free from its current harnesses whilst revelling within the possibilities they bring to modern audiences. Marking the fiftieth anniversary of the series by bringing the action back to the mother country under the watchful eye of a British director praised for his stateside filmmaking, Skyfall obtains triumph through being as genuinely crowd-pleasing, entertaining and contemplative as possible, meditating on and eradicating past failures while covering fresh and intelligent new ground. It may not be the most perfectly structured outing for the mercurial secret agent (although it certainly comes close), but it does stand as the most considered both narratively and thematically.
Perhaps the best way for screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan to reawaken Daniel Craig’s muscular Bond after the near-incomprehensibility of Quantum of Solace (2008) – itself a gruff cocktail of Jason Bourne-esque aerodynamics and a malnourished screenplay – was to return to the root of the cause for 2006’s productive franchise reboot: essaying the ramifications being a “Double O” spy has on such a jaded protagonist. This is done in a number of ways and can be seen to be upheld in the latest outing; although the story has moved on from the one-two punch of the preceding entries and their sharing of a related plot, unfortunately foregoing the covert global terrorist organisation known as Quantum (which could have been the new alternative to SPECTRE, perhaps) in favour of an all new antagonist force, Bond is still reeling from past events. When asked by a psychoanalyst in a series of quick-fire word associations to respond to the word “Heart”, Bond replies “Target”, which could be a nod to the betrayal and subsequent death of Vesper Lynd. Moreover, during said psychological and physical analysis – to which he actually fails on almost every count – he is seen as gaunt and fatigued, a poor shot suffering from his alcohol and sex-fuelled binge after the film’s opening mission goes awry and he plays along with the taken presumption that he is dead. This maintains the linearity established in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, and ensures that the slate wiping between each previous film is now obsolete.
Additionally sustained is the burgeoning relationship between Bond and M (again superbly played by Judi Dench), his figurative maternal figure. What is arguable, however, is how she has so much of an integral role that Bond is relatively pushed to the sidelines – narratively speaking – to allow for Dench to finally assume a more central and substantial position. Her past fuels the film, as, coming under threat from a destructive, technologically advanced Euro-villain, she and MI6 are targeted by a loaded threat: “Think on your sins”. M is Skyfall’s Bond girl, taking the mantle from Naomie Harris’s field agent-cum-desk clerk Eve Moneypenny (a final scene reveal) and Bérénice Lim Marlohe’s underappreciated femme fatale Severine, whose death is shrugged off by Bond in an uncomfortably flippant line, and this powers the unusual but fascinatingly gurgling oedipal subtext that the film gradually unearths between her, Bond and Javier Bardem’s sensational – and sadistically camp – villain Raoul Silva.
Filled with circular reference points, Mendes keeps the relationship between his central troika alight throughout the film by rarely letting the plot – which concerns a missing list of current undercover NATO agents in terrorist organisations – impinge on the framework he delicately sets up. Instead, he uses it as a springboard for the duality between Bond and Silva to emanate and have room to breath. Effectively two sides of the same coin, or the two remaining rats from Silva’s indelible analogy, these are agents that have invariably been left for dead by their commander (or “mother”, as Silva associates), although, true to form, Bond takes M’s demand for Eve to take the shot regardless of his potential casualty as part of the job, whereas Silva takes her knee-jerk recklessness – and supposed betrayal – as a means for a redemptive end. This all adds to the crux of the film: M’s favouritism and personal infatuation with Bond and his acceptance of her as a makeshift parent see them through each mission, though this time neither come out unscathed.
In order to continue into the future, Bond has to delve into his inner psyche and, by extension, concealed past; booby-trap and consequently annihilate it. Furthermore, it can be argued that Craig’s three Bond outings represent something of a fairly tightly wound trilogy tied together by their quest to dig deeper into a character that, historically, has been portrayed as an empty weapon without emotional ties or real-world responsibilities. In Casino Royale we saw how he attained his status, fell in love and had his heart broken; Quantum of Solace extenuated and exacerbated his despair, and now, with Skyfall, his past is illuminated in several ways: from his titular childhood home in Scotland to the shot of his parent’s tombstone. To this end, it was inevitable that he circumnavigated the destruction of his roots and, to some extent, witness the death of M; two elements that have so far stopped him from becoming the Double O agent that requires minimal binding ties (and the agent the five previous actors portrayed).
In Q’s (a skittish Ben Whishaw) inaugural scene, he and Bond are seen studying J. M. W. Turner’s painting ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ in The National Gallery, which acts as a thematic framing device for the film and its central concerns. In it, the sailing warship HMS Temeraire is being towed away by a steam tug for scrap in post-war 1838, which is symbolically mirrored by M, struggling to fend off political denouncers looking to ease her into forceful retirement, and Bond being usurped by modern, cyber technology, or lack there of in the case of his minimalistic new gadgets. Both characters are fighting from the shadows against an unknowable future, only M is the one defeated by 21st century appropriation.
It is this final equation, embedded within a rousingly bombastic denouement, which casts a worrying shadow over upcoming episodes. Although the Craig-era signals a post-Freudian Bond for our times, a man who cries as easily as he kills in cold blood, the ending of Skyfall dons a business as usual shift into degeneration now that the previously traditional elements are woven into place. Part of the refreshment provided by Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace was seeing how 007 manages without the fancy gadgetry and suggestively-titled women, components that a decade ago were intensified and stuffed into films that began to resemble boxes that merely needed ticking in familiarly routine fashion (see Die Another Day (2002)).
Yet, as Skyfall’s audience-winking final scene demonstrates, the implementation of a demoted Moneypenny and the presence of a new (male) M situated behind that familiar padded door, as well as Bond’s sterile ability to move on and accept another mission seemingly unscathed by a substantial, nee personal, loss (although it could be seen as a resilience to seek further vengeance), the series now appears to be embracing a semblance of conformity to the processes of the original films. Now stripped of emotional hindrances, Bond could easily be steered away from the productive reassessment brought about by this recent set of instalments and into reductive territory, sacrificing newfound agility in favour of a spy film everyone once loved, but nobody misses.