This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Matthew Noble’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Bond-A-Thon 2018 (formerly 2017)
Film #23: Skyfall (2012)
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Daniel Craig as Ian Fleming's James Bond 007
*This review contains spoilers for the movie Skyfall, as well as for the movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service and the novel You Only Live Twice. You have been warned.*
"Last Rat Standing."
2012 was an amazing time to be a Brit. There were no divisive referendums to worry about. The Royal Wedding had just happened a year earlier. The England football team reached the semi-finals at Euro 2012. The Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee with various commemorations. And then there were the London Olympics, where 007 himself escorted Her Majesty to the opening ceremony. As it turned out, the latter event was the best bit of publicity Skyfall could've possibly gotten, building a hype train that ensured the film was a box office smash when it came out three months later.
Because I never really went to the multiplex as a kid - preferring to wait for DVDs to come out - Skyfall holds the unique distinction of being the first Bond movie I ever saw at the cinema. As I can recall, my cousin and his wife were also there with me: they had already seen the thing, but were apparently more than happy to watch it again. In retrospect, this was a good one for me to start with.
That Istanbul PTS inaugurates the story sensationally, and is arguably the most entertaining one we've had since The World Is Not Enough. Described by Mendes as having a nesting doll structure, the sequence morphs from ground action, to a car chase, to a motorcycle chase, to a train-bound set piece with a construction crane, to a fistfight that concludes with Bond plunging hundreds of feet into the icy water below. All four of Daniel Craig's pre-title efforts are worthy, but Skyfall's can't be beat for sheer spectacle and effective execution. 2012 me could actually feel his heart pounding as he witnessed those first 10 minutes elapse. 2018 me isn't much better.
From what I can remember, Bond comes closer to death in these opening titles than he has done since Fleming's book of From Russia With Love. Obviously we all know 007 can't actually expire (cue Alan Partridge: "Oh God, James Bond's going to die, he's going to die!"), but it is still hella fun watching him essentially have an out-of-body experience in Daniel Kleinman's credit sequence. Flames, dragons, naked ladies, gravestones, knives, a naked lady with a gun, mirrors, an ancestral home, more naked ladies... yup, that's more or less what I'd imagine James Bond's final thoughts would be before he crossed over to the great MI6 office in the sky.
Oh, and Adele's song is pretty good too. Proper soulful stuff, very stirring. I approve.
The first act in London is something of a slow burner after the excitement of the pre-titles. MI6 comes under attack, M is being retired, and everyone looks depressed. Most Bond films take a while to set up their characters and establish some momentum, but Skyfall feels oddly leaden during its opening salvo, owing to its more introspective approach. Fascinatingly, one early script subplot involved the retention of Bond's lover from his three month absence. In a twist that would echo Kissy Suzuki in Fleming's You Only Live Twice, she would reveal to M that she was pregnant with Bond's child, and be sent away soon after. Alas, this addition was dropped during rewrites. Anyway, Sam Mendes' fluid direction maintains a sense of engagement, so at least I was never actually bored during any of these scenes. And besides, it is cool to see 007 doing a word association test. My favourite exchange: "Agent?" "Provocateur." "Woman?" "Provocatrix."
In Skyfall, the MI6 cast gets properly expanded for the first time since Craig took over. Bill Tanner's reintroduction in Quantum of Solace aside - none of the movies really nail Tanner, who is meant to be Bond's work BFF and occasional golfing buddy - the inclusion of some new variants on Bond's supporting players was long overdue. Ralph Fiennes in particular proves to be a splendid choice as Gareth Mallory, the new M. Closer in age to Craig's Bond, there's a fun dynamic teased between the pair in both of Fiennes' appearances, which I hope gets explored more in Bond 25. Equally as inspired is Ben Whishaw as Q. Obviously Desmond Llewelyn's shadow still lingers over the franchise, so attempting another John Cleese style replacement would be misguided. Thankfully Whishaw has instant chemistry with Craig (likely as a result of them starring together in Layer Cake), and his deadpan smart-arse performance helps enable this reinterpretation of the gadget master to gel wonderfully with Mendes' modern aesthetic.
After that deliberate London preamble, things perk up immensely when the second act shifts to Asia. For me, the neon-drenched Shanghai sequence - which follows Bond as he stalks hitman Patrice and culminates in a fantastic fight between the pair against the backdrop of an electronic jellyfish - is the unequivocal highlight of Skyfall. Perfectly scored, immaculately shot, and with virtually no dialogue, those 10 minutes are both an aesthetic treat for cinephiles (like me) and a tremendous source of pleasure for Bondophiles (also like me). It's almost like Sofia Coppola's take on Ian Fleming: insanely glittery and quietly brooding at the same time.
Fear not dear readers, I haven't forgotten about Miss Moneypenny. Anyone who spent more than ten seconds thinking about Naomie Harris's casting probably wasn't surprised when field operative "Eve" was revealed to be M's secretary. In my case, I went in mostly blind, and was actually somewhat surprised by the twist. So I guess I have to hand it to the filmmakers for doing their job well, even if I can retroactively criticise them for attempting to pull the wool over our eyes in the first place. Anyway, Harris is terrific in the role, nailing the Moneypenny mixture of prim professionalism and flirtatious fun about as well as anyone could. As with good old Desmond, Lois Maxwell has loomed over successive portrayals of the character since she left, with Caroline Bliss and Samantha Bond's renditions suffering a little by comparison. So as with the new Q, the screenplay's different depiction of Moneypenny more than permits Harris to make the part her own.
Onto Macau, seemingly lit by a thousand lanterns and fireworks, which continues the high standard for entertainment set by Shanghai. It's another suitably excellent bit of Bondy fun, complete with casino extravagance, fighting henchmen, Komodo dragons, and a sultry woman of mystery. Said woman is Sévérine, arriving in the form of Bérénice Lim Marlohe, Craig's French-born muse for the evening. Marketing positioned Sévérine as the apparent Bond girl of Skyfall, but she is shockingly killed off about five scenes after she is introduced. On the one hand, this is oddly intriguing, and symptomatic of the movie's larger attempt to subvert the tropes of past Bond adventures (another example happens earlier on, when Bond is given a signature gun similar to the one he had in Licence to Kill, but loses it having never fired a single shot). But on the other hand, her death is barely acknowledged by Bond, even after he slept with her, which is cruel even by 007's usual standards.
Forgetting my criticisms of Sévérine's treatment, the abandoned island is a properly iconic location, one of the best in modern Bond. Likewise, Silva's unforgettable one-take monologue about rats may be the finest introduction any Bond villain has ever been presented. Mr. Silva himself - Javier Bardem, who eats up the screen with infectious verve - is a truly great baddy, narrowly pipped by Le Chiffre in terms of pure nastiness. But though he may be menacing, Silva is not meant to be as scary or intimidating as someone like Bardem's own Anton Chigurh. Instead, he's more comparable to a traditional antagonist like Max Zorin or Alec Trevelyan, albeit with a layer of bisexual camp to threaten Bond's presumably heteronormative worldview. Do whatever queer theory studies you want, but that moment where Silva caresses Bond's thighs provokes a unique kind of peril never before seen... for the first time in the series' history, the audience worries that the villain will sexually assault 007.
Given Silva's position as a former MI6 agent who was personally betrayed by M, I once came to the conclusion that Skyfall is secretly a stealth remake of both GoldenEye and The World Is Not Enough, combining their respective strengths into one superior package. Beyond the feelings of Brosnan nostalgia though, it does bring into question Judi Dench's larger impact on the whole franchise. Although her casting as M initially seemed designed to appease critics who felt Bond was behind the times, the character gradually gained more relevance, becoming something of a surrogate mother figure to James. This plot therefore takes full advantage of M's connection to 007, emphasising her steadfast stubbornness and resolve, while also pitting him against Silva in a meaningful manner with clear emotional stakes.
This thematic conflict comes into focus once the action returns to London (another parallel to The World Is Not Enough), with Silva unleashing his plan to publicly kill M and humiliate MI6. Some people have railed against this plot development, claiming it is far too convoluted. I don't mind at all, although I suppose it doesn't discourage those comparisons between Skyfall and Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. The creepy antagonist getting captured to enact his master plan; the stoic protagonist having to rise again and retrain after nearly dying; the Hans Zimmer style score... yeah, I don't see any similarities at all.
Before moving between the second and third acts, a word on the Aston Martin DB5. As you might expect, I love that car. It's spectacular in Goldfinger. But let's be honest, it was the victim of diminishing returns. Thunderball, okay. GoldenEye was pushing it. By Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough, they were really stretching a point. Even in Casino Royale its presence felt weird, like a holdover from the Brosnan era. But the DB5's inclusion here does feel genuinely satisfying, not least because the writers actually do something with the bloody thing. If nothing else, at least they give the car a noble death, complete with rising score and Bond getting angrier with Silva than when he shot Sévérine.
The third act takes us to Scotland, birthplace of both James Bond and myself. Although just to be clear, I’m more familiar with the country’s suburban households and industrial parks as opposed to any foggy moors and familial estates. What transpires next is an old school finale that might well have been filmed in 1965 with Sean Connery and Bernard Lee. Hell, Albert Finney could have been in both versions as Kincade, although Broccoli & Wilson briefly toyed with the idea of casting Connery as the old gamekeeper. Mercifully, they realised what a silly notion that was and decided against it.
Bond's arc in Skyfall comes full circle at this junction. In order to regain "that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven" (hence M's appropriate reference to Tennyson's Ulysses), the now-exhausted 00 veteran has to revisit his own past. Silva himself states that Bond's "pathological rejection of authority" stems from "unresolved childhood trauma" - the loss of his parents in a climbing accident at the age of 13. Unlike many of us, who are slowly shaped into adults by our own experiences, James Bond became a man prematurely, through unimaginable loss. It therefore makes complete sense for Skyfall - a film built on the idea of looking back on Bond's history before moving forward into an uncertain future - to tackle the subject of his true origin in order to point the way forward. Before Bond can grow as a person, he has to learn to mourn what he has lost. And if he is to mourn properly, then someone important to him has to die.
In the ultimate act of subverting Bond tropes, our hero fails the mission, by failing to protect M. Some fans take against this twist as well - Bond novelist Anthony Horowitz cited it as one of his main reasons for considering Skyfall the worst Bond movie - but I think it's essential to Bond's continued growth as a character. Tellingly, this is only the second time we've ever seen James Bond cry onscreen - the first occurrence since Tracy died in his arms on their wedding day. The subsequent happy ending back in London may jar as a result, but such is the case in the chaotic world of 007. Besides, who doesn't smile seeing the new Moneypenny behind her desk, or the new M doling out assignments from his wood-panelled office? Hell, I'm such a sucker for Bond iconography that even the return of M's leather door made me grin like a loon. Forget any pretences of modernism, it’s a pleasure to see the classic set return for the first time since 1987. Yes sirree, we're back in business!
Looking back, I guess most of us anticipated a proper sequel to Quantum of Solace, to continue the story of Daniel's Bond in that vein. What we actually got did contribute to Craig's maturation, but was more of a standalone adventure than we initially expected. The modern Goldfinger in a sea of SPECTRE-based stories, if you will. I admit that Skyfall isn't perfect. Some of the dialogue is snappy and sharp, but several examples do register with me as stilted, and the humour occasionally threatens to dip into Moore-esque silliness as opposed to Craig's pre-established situational material.
All that being said, Skyfall is a damn fine film. For me, Casino Royale remains the unimpeachable pinnacle of 21st century Bondage, but Skyfall comes in at a surprisingly close second. I'll be the first to point out its flaws, but there ultimately aren't that many for me to focus on. A bona fide cultural phenomenon, it became a critical and commercial success upon release, and will continue to hold a special place in my heart for many years to come.
Best Aspect: The cinematography. But I discuss that below, so I'll also pick Thomas Newman's music. That I never even missed David Arnold's presence on the soundtrack is something of a minor miracle, and it's all due to Newman's streamlined mix of ambient mood pieces and energetic action beats.
Obligatory Thomas Newman tracks:
Worst Aspect: Like I said, some of the dialogue is sorely on the nose, even for a Bond film.
Best Scene: Shanghai. Bondian perfection, simple as that. Runners-up include the PTS, Macau, Silva's introduction, and everything that happens at Skyfall lodge.
Worst Scene: Sévérine's death. I get how Bond's cold reaction informs his overall arc, but a moment of recognition before he left the island would have made all the difference.
This movie's MVP: Roger Deakins. From my first viewing of Skyfall I knew it was the best looking Bond film ever made, and we have Deakins' incomparable contribution behind the lens to thank for that. Known for his work with the Coens, Denis Villeneuve, and of course Sam Mendes, Deakins has received fourteen Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography, and eventually won his long-overdue Oscar for last year's Blade Runner 2049. Needless to say, his impeccable compositions and staggering use of light and colour make every frame of Skyfall a joy to look at.
James Bond will return in Spectre