Let’s get the problems out of the way, so that I can move on to the naked adoration of this movie which I enjoyed quite thoroughly.
The idea of “sometimes old ways are the best” gets repeated one time too many. After M having said it repeatedly, when the gamekeeper at Skyfall says it, it seems just once too much. Of course, it is the knife he gives Bond as he says it that comes good at the very end. The related idea of the world being as opaque as before, of the war in the shadows being as necessary as ever, also gets repeated a lot, and, once again, the final scenes do take place in the shadows, literally.
Another part that felt a bit weird was the pace of the last thirty minutes. Once Silva is captured as early as 2/3rds of the way into the movie, there is perhaps no choice with the storyline except to have him escape and go after M at her hearing. However, instead of having a mega-showdown in London, where everyone goes down, guns blazing, the storyline slows down, and takes us to bleak, beautiful Scotland. I suppose the mega-showdown, or lack of one, is what separates a Bond movie from a Die Hard movie (of which there was a pretty compelling trailer in the beginning), but the move to Scotland felt a bit arbitrary, and was not witty, clever, Bond-ian enough. Are we to think that Skyfall is where Bond feels most able to defend M and take on Silva, instead of, say, a cottage in the Cotswolds? Or is it just an excuse to give us the Bond backstory?
Which brings us to the backstory. American TV procedurals such as CSI, Criminal Minds and others (and perhaps British ones too, I don’t know) have taught us that the way to explain away any character is by giving them a traumatic childhood. It can be traumatized through abuse, or destitution, or war, or being orphaned, and ideally, some combination of these. Heck, even Harry Potter gets the “orphaned at birth, raised by unloving aunt” backstory. It feels a little unimaginative to give Bond this backstory. A better choice may have been to give no backstory at all. Having decided to give one, I suppose it would have been too much to give him a bustling set of farmer parents, sisters and nephews to whom he gifts toy train sets like a doting uncle, but maybe a crazy scientist parent, say, could have been made to work?
I feel like it might have worked for some of the older Bonds, maybe the Sean Connery one, or the Roger Moore one, back when the Bond character was still pretty light-hearted. The Daniel Craig reboot of the last two movies (the excellent Casine Royale and the less than excellent Quantum of Solace) has been a pretty intense character, who has suffered betrayal from and the death of a loved one. This makes him a modern Bond for modern times in some ways. His emotional register goes beyond cocky and sarcastic and encompasses troubled yet tender loyalties such as that to M and country. (“Pathetic love of country” as he says to Silva at one point.) Another aspect that has disappeared with the modernization is the use of women as, for want of a better word, toys. The famously steamy encounters of the swooning-woman-muttering-“Oh James” variety are minimal in recent Bond movies, including this one, and the women just get more respect overall. (And fewer of them end up dead too.)
(It is interesting to me in retrospect that the sexism of the older Bond movies did not bother me back then. Was it just that I was young? Or was it because the movies were humourous and emotionally lightweight that the sexism did not register? And is that really the worst kind of sexism of all? The kind that slips through without even attracting comment? I wonder if it might bother me if I were to see those movies today.)
And so it is a useful thing for this modern Bond to have Daniel Craig’s face. It’s a face that looks at home in tense and troubled situations, mouth tightly drawn, brow slightly creased. And on the rare occasion that he smiles, sometimes with mischief, it is as if the sun shines through. I am not sure that Daniel Craig has a classically handsome face, but as a package deal, I find him mind-blowingly attractive. (Does that make me sound like a teenage girl? Oh well.)
Not only was Daniel Craig a visual treat for me, so was the entire movie. It is shot beautifully and I found myself oohing several times. If the train ride through Turkey in the classic opening action sequence, is traditionally beautiful, especially the first shot of the mountains, then the Shanghai lights when Bond hunts down Patrice have an abstract, smoke-and-mirrors beauty that is filmed quite uniquely. The shots as Bond and M drive to Scotland have that depressing half-light of higher latitudes that is heartrendingly lovely, and the orange light cast by the burning house gives the closing scenes an ethereal quality. Setting the house on fire is a great artistic decision from this point of view — the old style running around at the end, over the treeless expanse, works visually because of it. And is it just me, or does an old stone house going up in flames remind others of Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley as well?
And while we are on the highfalutin topic of intertextuality, the orphaned kid, the underground tunnel, the long-time gamekeeper did remind some people of Harry Potter, as did the pre-movie trailer for The Hobbit, described by my friend as “Harry Potter for grown-ups.” It’s a very British interconnectedness over here!
The opening action sequence reminded me of something very American though. In one of the Indiana Jones movies (perhaps the second one?) there is an extended action sequence involving an underground tunnel and a train. It plays like a cartoon, totally over the top, and utterly hilarious (to me). I’m sure the Bond sequence was not intended to elicit laughs, but it did from this viewer (and the neighbouring guy turned to look too!) because it was Indy on acid. It was as well done and dramatic as could be, but it was so over the top, especially the part where he uses the bulldozer(?) to connect the two parts of the train, that I just started laughing. The motorcycles on the rooftops and the crushed oranges were predictable but also fun.
Skyfall did deliberately try to get some laughs out of the viewer too — jokes about exploding pens, for instance. The scene with the komodo dragon, where the bad guy fails to fire Bond’s gun because it only works with Bond’s palm print was also funny, and seemed to me to be an upgrade of the popular, and humourously anti-climactic scene from many movies, including Indiana Jones, where the good guy shoots dead a massive sword-wielding bad guy from a distance, without going through any dramatic tussles. Inspite of the occasional dry humour though, Skyfall has a far more serious tenor than the Bond movies of yore.
I find that it also has more plot holes than Bond movies of yore. It sweeps over them in such a stylish manner that one cannot be seriously troubled by them, but they are pretty glaring. Bond surviving the shot at the beginning is never explained (Adele’s song and the traditional, beautifully psychedelic title sequence are quite effective at covering up that omission, as is the scorpion scene in the beach hut a bit later, after some brooding and walking around on a beautiful beach), Silva’s escape is never fully explained, neither are the armies of men he seemingly has at his disposal, all showing up precisely when and where needed, wearing or bringing exactly the correct clothes (read police uniforms). Javier Bardem’s Silva has been hailed as a great Bond villain, and one reason he is great is because he makes all this seem perfectly reasonable, perfectly orchestrated by him, perfectly planned beforehand.
There is one final thing in this movie that is perfect, and it’s not the work of the actors, or the director, or the cinematographer. It is the work of Tennyson. I first read the last lines of Ulysses in Alistair MacLean’s HMS Ulysses, back when I was a kid, and they have stayed with me ever since.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Since then the lines have appeared in the last episode of Frasier (a show I never saw much of, but I did see this bit), and now here, from the mouth of Judi Dench’s M. (Well, not the first three lines.) The lines are very famous, of course, and deservedly so, and I never once believed that I was the only person on the planet to hold them so close to my heart, but it still gives me very pleasant jolts of surprise whenever I come across them in a new place. Well done, Skyfall!
The last time I wanted to see a movie twice in the theatres was twenty years ago. Let’s hope the next time I feel that way is not later than the next Bond movie.