James Bond, the character, has been around for almost sixty years. James Bond, the icon of style, British-American cinema, action and all-round coolness, has been around for fifty. 2012 has been a good year for British milestones. Firstly, the UK celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II. Secondly, the city of London hosted the Olympic Games, hailed largely as one of the best in recent memory. Finally, on October 23, 2012, Skyfall was released, cashing in on sentiment of British people following such huge successes earlier in the year. And what a decision. Since its release in the UK, Skyfall has broken record after record in that nation’s box office. After a month of release, having been released in most markets worldwide, Skyfall is now the biggest Bond film ever, easily eclipsing is predecessor, Quantum of Solace and continuing to blitz towards a possible $900m, according to BoxOfficeMojo.
It took me a while to admit it, but for a long time I was obsessed with James Bond. To be perfectly honest I got a little bit obsessed again in the lead-up to Skyfall, but unlike with Quantum of Solace in 2008, it hasn’t all been for nothing. Skyfall is the perfect mix of original Bond story and references to Fleming material. In short, it is as near perfect as any Bond film has ever been, up there with From Russia With Love and Goldfinger as a masterpiece in the series.
The film opens with a thrilling chase across the top of Istanbul and a train, with 007 in pursuit of a stolen hard drive containing a list of NATO agents embedded undercover worldwide; ultimately his pursuit fails after he is shot in error by one of MI6’s own agents. Months later, Bond is laying low, “enjoying death”, when a terrorist hit on the MI6 HQ at Vauxhall Cross is broadcast on CNN. Soon after, he returns to London, goes through rigorous testing and returns to the field in pursuit of the man responsible for the bombing and death of 9 agents. Eventually he is brought before Raoul Silva, possibly the campest of Bond villains ever, brought marvellously to life by Javier Bardem. Taking him captive, Bond learns Silva’s motive, and is then led on a merry chase spanning the entire length of the United Kingdom, culminating in one of the more affecting endings to a Bond film yet.
Quantum of Solace was directed by Marc Forster, better, or indeed solely known for his more arty films such as Finding Neverland, and he himself expressed surprise at being chosen to direct the film. Ultimately the producers chose unwisely, but it doesn’t help that the pre-production of the film continued throughout the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, without writers and just an arthouse director and Daniel Craig writing the story. In short, it was a decent film but not a fitting follow-up to the ground-breaking and excellent Casino Royale. With Skyfall, they again chose a director more known for his character dramas than action films – Sam Mendes, of Revolutionary Road and American Beauty fame. However, the choice seems to have been spot on, and writing as a huge Bond fan, I couldn’t have been more satisfied.
In the rather long running time of Skyfall, we learn more about the filmic James Bond and his backstory than in the entire twenty-two preceding films. Much, though not all, of it comes direct from the Fleming novels. For the first time on film, we learn the names of Bond’s deceased parents and we travel “back in time” to the Bond ancestral home. Tanner, M’s Chief of Staff, is Bond’s best friend in the novels. Watching Skyfall, it certainly seems that Mendes is trying to develop that relationship; Tanner and Bond have some of the best, albeit brief, banter in the film. It will be interesting to see how all these little nuggets are expanded upon in coming films.
Mendes is a self-admitted fan of James Bond, and it is very clear throughout the film. All the typical tropes are present – cheeky one liners, conversations laced with innuendo, exotic and beautifully filmed locations…I could go on. It is a joy to watch a film crafted by a man who so clearly knows what audiences want from a Bond outing.
But of course, it’s not just Mendes who is responsible for the successes of Skyfall. His long-time cinematographer, Roger Deakins, has framed some of the most marvellous shots I have ever seen throughout every Bond film. Until I saw Skyfall, this was my favourite sequence from any Bond film ever, especially with the punchy harpsichord backing – the helicopter pan just works so well:
But Skyfall has it now. There’s one scene, a fistfight between 007 and a henchman, silhouetted against a neon jellyfish on an upper floor of a Shanghai building. Every single person I went to the midnight showing with singled that out as something they loved as we left the cinema afterwards. Joining that one sequence is a whole lot of beautiful scene-setting shots in each and every location that were totally absent from Quantum of Solace. Deakins has been nine times nominated for Academy Awards, and it is not hard to see why. But, good cinematography is nothing without editors to put it all together.
Returning to James Bond after a one-film absence is editor Stuart Baird. Having edited Casino Royale, and with a history of great films to his name, Baird is a sensible choice. The film is snappily but not frenetically edited, and is aided by costuming decisions that clarify who is who. Two thumbs up to the production team for moving away from The Bourne Imitations.
But of course, it’s not just the visuals that are lovable about Skyfall. This is one hell of a character drama for a mainstream action film. Mendes has been able to get inconceivably good performances from the cast; every character just gels with the film; no-one grates or feels unnecessary. Daniel Craig is loosening up and becoming more of the Bond we’re familiar with from pre-Casino Royale. He’s witty, charming and a little tongue-in-cheek; but he has depth of character too. Also, Tom Ford did his tailoring, and he has done a rather good job. Makes me wish I looked like Daniel Craig so I could get away with that sort of trouser cut.
To be honest, it’s actually hard to decide who to write about and in which order; all the characters are pretty important. Naomie Harris as Eve is absolutely charming and will certainly be reappearing; Ralph Fiennes as public servant Gareth Mallory is an inspired choice, and the character of Mallory is incredibly intriguing – watch him closely in the Inquiry scene; Bernice Marlohe as the mysterious Severine is, well, mysterious; and the Aston Martin DB5, now magically fully-loaded, is a character all its own, and it was a thrill to see it in action.
I’m going to put this out there right now and say I have never been a fan of Judi Dench as M. I always thought she was written as too much of a ‘hard-ass,’ that the writers were focusing too much on the fact that she was a woman and not that she was actually pretty capable. Finally, though, in her seventh appearance as the character, Dench has nailed it. Still a bit tough, but a lot more down to earth. The tragedy that ultimately befalls her actually almost makes me wish she were continuing in the role. However, I think her replacement is going to be more than capable.
However, the big coup of this film is Javier Bardem as Raoul Silva. Oh. My. Gosh. I have never seen a more compelling villain in one of these films. He’s part Goldfinger, part Blofeld, part Max Zorin (Christopher Walken’s villain from A View To A Kill – such a waste of Walken). He’s slimy, he’s charming, he’s creepy, he’s hilarious. I cannot actually describe just how effective Bardem is in this role. He overacts to the max and yet it’s not a problem. There are rows of tents less camp than Silva, but the whole construction works. He is incredibly effective and certainly the biggest drawcard for repeat viewings. Props to Mendes and the producers for their casting decisions, and especially to Mendes for his direction. These performances are showstopping.
And so, I hear you ask, dear reader, is Skyfall really perfect, or is it too good to be true? Tragically, it is too good to be true. If there is one mistake they have made on this film, it was Mendes being allowed to bring his regular composer, Thomas Newman. David Arnold, who wrote the most beautiful and emotional music ever heard in Bond films for both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, had scored the previous five films. Alas, he was replaced with Newman on Skyfall. Now, the thing is, it is actually a pretty solid score. It’s lush in places, exotic where it needs to be, and there’s even a reference to my favourite soundtrack at the moment, Vertigo. But Newman just doesn’t hit the heights of Arnold. It’s a very ambient score, as is Newman’s wont – he wrote music for Wall-E and Finding Nemo – which works to an extent in Skyfall but ultimately you wish for more brass and less percussion loops. Also, the original James Bond theme is woefully underused and Newman seems reluctant to put his own spin on it, instead just borrowing an Arnold arrangement from Casino Royale. It’s a pleasant score to listen to, but a little underwhelming. I just know that Arnold would have taken this film with both hands, composed a whole bunch of new themes to tug at the heartstrings, and thrown in a bunch of references to Bond scores of yesteryear; because if there is one person capable of doing that, it is David Arnold (listen to his score for Tomorrow Never Dies if you think I’m getting lost in my own adulation).
However, there is hope to be found yet. Adele’s theme song, “Skyfall,” is spot on. She hits the Bassey-ish heights of Goldfinger but is more restrained, leading to an understated but very, very listenable Bond theme tune; in the film accompanied by a frightening, Gothic trip through a living hell as Bond sinks to the bottom of a Turkish river (designed by Daniel Kleinman in yet another return for a previous Bond alum). Adele once again affirms why she is one of this decade’s biggest stars, and thank goodness, I say.
This is beginning to run a little long – like the third act of Skyfall, funnily enough – and I would love to keep writing, but really, you should just go and see Skyfall for yourself and fill in the spaces for me. Maybe you could see it twice. Or three times. Because I certainly haven’t done that as this goes to publication. Seriously, though, Skyfall is for everyone. It has enough drama and character to keep non-action fans interested, and enough explosions to satisfy everyone else. The last five minutes truly set the tone for any following films, and I am glad that if anyone was going to leave their mark on the series, it has been Sam Mendes. Top stuff.