Thursday, November 22, 2012

Movie Review: Skyfall

What is it about James Bond? I mean, 50 years, 23 ("official") movies, 6 lead actors and more cars, women and explosions than you can count, and still it's going strong, standing on, rather than being dragged under by, the weight of history that the series has accrued. Its been written off several times and not least after the messy Quantum of Solace but here he is, back again, storming the box office. And we went to see it last week, and so this is what I thought (warning, spoilers!)

In some ways this is a different sort of Bond film, unlike, perhaps, any of its predecessors. Its gone in this sort of direction before but never quite with the same commitment; a deeply personal plot, heavy on character and actual acting, with a beaten down soul that feels a long way from Roger Moores aged quippery. At the same time, there are flashes of the same old Bond, the same faithful beats and images, and a clear intent to update what you expect from the franchise, bringing back some of the elements missing from Daniel Craig's earlier outings.

Skyfall opens magnificently. The traditional pre-credits, in media res sequence is part of the Bond experience and this one is one of the best; just building and building the tempo of the music, editing and speed (foot, to cars, to bikes, to train) to a sharp, dramatic conclusion. It feels like a marker down for the rest of the film, something to warm you up and make you expectant, but also proving a point that giving the helm to a non-action director in Sam Mendes wasn't such a crazy idea after all.

Speaking of Mendes the direction, along with Roger Deakins' cinematography, makes this the best looking Bond film I can think of. It is sumptuous to look at, especially the Shanghai and Scotland sequences, but more fundamentally there is a look of quality to the film that just stands out of the screen. The pacing, the editing, the whole technical side of the production is a step up for the franchise, with very little slack anywhere in it's two-and-a-bit hours runtime.

But, back to the plot. In some ways this is old-school Bond; there is a baddie, he is doing baddie things from a secret lair (Battleship Island, which is a fascinating place in it's own right) and needs to be stopped. We have a new Q, strangely faithful yet outwardly very different, and we have the series best secret weapon in it's history; Judi Dench's M. This is Dench's film, start to finish. She commands every scene that she's in (and she's in a lot), giving the sort of performance that lifts all the performances around her. The plot is built around her, around her legacy and history, gives what is in many ways a light story a gravitas that maybe it doesn't deserve.

There has been some writings about the films treatment of women; a brutal, off-hand death for one "Bond Girl", the plucky female field agent relegated to secretary, and of course Dench's death and replacement by Lord Voldemort at the end. I'm not sold on the idea that there is a deep misogyny at work here - Dench may have been killed, but it's her film, and Eve may have ended up flying a desk but she's shown to be largely brave and capable and I'll reserve judgement until I see how they handle her character in the next film. As for the death - I think it's a bum note in the film, but because I'm not sure how I'm supposed to take it. Does Bond use and abandon her as coldly as it appears? Is his true reaction to her death not the quip - intended to keep everyone relaxed and slightly off-guard - but the outbreak of brutal violence that follows it? Its ambiguous, but I'm not sure it should have been.

Especially as the film gave more weight to the death of a car later on.

The car was, of course, one of the many nods to the Bond Legacy throughout the film, most of them subtle and I suspect I've missed a load I'll catch on a rewatch. After a gripping (and pretty low-key and original for a Bond Film) finale we are right back where we started, with M behind a big, old fashioned desk with a door covered in a sofas worth of padding. It's the archetypal Bond reinvention; very new in so many ways but very traditional in others. And strangely, it works. It works very well indeed.