007, Albert Finney, Aston Martin DB5, Ben Whishaw, Berenice Marlohe, Daniel Craig, Ian Fleming, James Bond, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, M, Naomie Harris, Q, Ralph Fiennes, Roger Deakins, Sam Mendes, Skyfall
I must have been one of the first people in the world not directly connected with the making of James Bond’s 23rd official big screen adventure to see raw footage of the film during production. I work at the IMAX cinema in London that Sam Mendes used during the filming of Skyfall to test his footage. Early one morning during one of his visits I was going about my usual business when I passed the entrance to the IMAX screen and briefly peered in. I saw a shot of Daniel Craig handing someone else a small indistinguishable object in a transparent evidence bag. Not exactly a money-shot but still exciting given this was months before the first trailer emerged. Watching the finished film at last I was very gratified to recognise the shot I had seen having wondered if it had been important enough to make the cut. It was a small instance of personal amusement that will forever be unique just to me.
But enough about such a tiny moment, this film, as I tried to explain to my housemate who didn’t like the film because he was bothered by insignificant details, is about the big picture. Skyfall comes with one of the simplest stories the series has offered, eschewing the labyrinthine and barely comprehensible plot Quantum of Solace presented for a straightforward revenge story shot through with a strong central theme. We open with a blistering sequence involving bikes, jeeps, diggers and trains (further proving my theory that trains make everything better) that dispels any fears that Sam Mendes might struggle to direct action. Bond and field colleague Eve (Naomie Harris) are in pursuit of a hired gun who has pinched a hard drive containing a list of NATO operatives embedded in terrorist organisations around the world, leaving one of Bond’s other MI6 chums dying in his wake. He gets away after Eve, acting on M’s orders, accidentally shoots Bond whilst trying to snipe the perpetrator.
This is the first of many homages to previous classic Bond films, namely You Only Live Twice (the first Bond film I ever saw), in which he seems to die in the pre-credits sequence (see also From Russia with Love) only for him to return. In this case Bond’s ‘death’ was not engineered by MI6 but a mistake that spells disaster for M. But as we all know James Bond Will Return and when the shady force behind the theft strikes again his sense of duty, not just to his job but to M, reawakens him. This film explores Bond’s relationship with his employer in far more depth than most other Bond films get into his relationships with anyone and the script finally makes good use of the fabulous Judi Dench, here appearing in her seventh picture. Ever since she labelled Bond a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur’ and a ‘relic of the Cold War’ in GoldenEye Dench’s tenure as the head of MI6 has felt definitive and yet we’ve only previously seen glimpses of what she can bring to the role. Here she is front and centre, as important to the plot and the satisfying vision of the film as Bond himself and this theme of the mother-son relationship drives absolutely everything including the villain.
We all knew that Javier Bardem was a sound choice for a Bond villain and his Silva doesn’t disappoint. Arriving on screen with a mesmerisingly framed single shot monologue he announces himself as an unhinged and ambiguous presence to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of the series, demonstrably modern in his methods but still identifiably a Bond villain complete with deformity, one of the grossest we’ve seen. Better yet he even has strong motivation that can be understood and even sympathised with and in his debut scene takes both Bond and Bond villainy to places we’ve never been before.
It’s plain that Sam Mendes was brought in to lend the 50th anniversary film some pedigree and his vision of the Bond film as something more than an escapist action yarn and something with a genuine heart and soul is plain from the opening shot but credit must also be given to DoP Roger Deakins. Put simply this is the most visually beautiful Bond film to date. Scene after scene pops with an art-house feel, lit and framed brilliantly. A fight scene in silhouette backed with a giant blue neon screen showing an undulating jellyfish will stick long in the memory and a shot of Bond and Eve communing by radio as they move independently through an oriental casino makes tremendous use of focus while feeling playful and fresh. His influence really helps the action sequences spark especially a breathless chase on the London Underground (further proving my theory that trains make everything better) which, as a commuter used to the brutal mundanity of the Tube I particularly enjoyed. This is a Bond film unlike any other in which the use of bold colour and silhouette creates memorable images to accompany the powerful character work and excitement.
But what most people will really take from this film is the pains the director and Daniel Craig have taken to cement its legacy as part of the Bond canon. Q finally makes an appearance in the Craig era in the form of a geek chic Ben Whishaw (watch out for his Scrabble mug) and with the numerous references to classic Bond (the Aston Martin DB5) comes a clear sense of both ending and beginning that fits the film’s task of representing half a century of films perfectly. The film also delves into the fascinating and hitherto unexplored question of Bond’s youth, a part of the story that brings in an amiable Albert Finney sporting the best facial hair he’s had since he played Poirot.
As for Craig he further shows in this film why he people are very seriously calling him the best incumbent of the venerable character, if not yet a match for Connery then at least giving him a damn good run for his money. Still without doubt the most human Bond to date there’s an emotional scene late on that would feel out of place with any other version of the spy but not Craig. I don’t think the film is perfect. The second act following the dazzling stylised opening credits, though never less than gripping, stays on the talky side a little too long, bits and pieces of incidental dialogue feel a little stunted here and there and the gorgeous Bérénice Marlohe isn’t on screen as much as she should be but come the final scene if you’re not completely won over by the sheer heart of it you’re a fool. This means you Tom Markham.
Bond celebrates his fiftieth in the best way possible with a hugely satisfying film that both casts a fond eye into the past while delivering an exciting and emotionally gripping story. All the essential elements hit the spot to show that Casino Royale was no accident. James Bond will return and long may his reign as cinema’s most enduring hero last.