It's an unusually funny, literate, worked-out script, and
Mendes seems hell-bent on making the best Bond since Goldfinger
- or the best, period.
- David Edelstein in New York (November 2012)
Film: 2012 (#23)
Bond pursues a former agent bent on revenge against M.
No, really, that's the entire plot. What were you expecting, an exploding pen? We don't really go in for that kind of thing any more.
In some respects, after having taken considerable trouble to develop the "rebooted" Bond in the previous two films, the beginning of this one is retrogressive. If the whole point of the end of Quantum of Solace was that Bond had learned to curb some of his worst loose-cannon tendencies, then a man so disgusted with everything that he plays dead and goes on a bender for months, then displays himself totally unsuitable to resume his job and doesn't even have the good grace to be ashamed about it, is a big step backward.
Perhaps someone realized that the reboot cycle was never going to actually be complete as long as he was still tied to his one link to the past - M. On the other hand, if this is a movie primarily about M, and specifically Judi Dench's M - and in some ways it is - then that leaves Bond secondary to his own film, which is not a place he should ever be.
Naomie Harris is pretty much the best thing to happen to Bond films on the female side since Judi Dench. (And, incidentally, among the other joys she brings to this role, she is also responsible for the sexiest scene ever in a Bond film. I'll let you figure out which one I mean.) It's a pity where she ends up; it means that from now on she will not be able to take nearly as much of an active role in any future films as she did here (and frankly there wasn't enough of her here). This woman needs her own franchise.
Does Bond sleep with her in this film? I say no, but if you want to say yes, I can see where you might find the justification for it. The fact that it is left a matter of speculation in itself indicates a level of subtlety a Bond film would not have been capable of twenty or even ten years earlier.
Unfortunately, the woman that Bond very clearly does have sex with is treated entirely as a plot point and is killed in an especially cavalier way. I realize it's done to show something about Javier Bardem's character, but you know, the people who object to fridging don't claim there's never a plot reason for it - their issue is, why is it always a woman who has to get killed to demonstrate villainy and/or give the hero something to have manpain about? And they're right. And it doesn't work anyway - Bond isn't affected, because nothing affects this Bond; he has almost completely achieved full emotional shutdown and is very nearly a monster himself. On the other hand, that's one of the key points of the film, so perhaps we did need it underlined.
The key woman in this film, of course, is M.
Sam Mendes, director of films I don't see because I don't voluntarily pay for pain (I did see American Beauty, and I suppose I mostly don't regret the experience), was hired to direct this one - and EON must have been pleased with the result, because as of this writing he has reportedly been confirmed to direct the next two. Rumor has it that Mendes had to be restrained from casting Kevin Spacey as the villain, which would have been a grave mistake, but apart from that I have no gripes to air. Incidentally, this makes the film the first time a Bond has been directed by an Oscar-winning director.
Production on this film was delayed nearly nine months due to the bankruptcy and subsequent sale of MGM.
Purvis and Wade continued to soldier on; however, they announced that this one would be their last Bond. Pity. This time the "script polishing" credit goes to John Logan, who apparently kept revising throughout filming. Writer Peter Morgan claims that his original draft, written before the MGM strike and uncredited, contained key points retained by the later team.
The score in this one doesn't stink because they gave it to Thomas Newman and not David Arnold. This may also be something we must credit to Mendes, who was accustomed to working with Newman. Certainly Arnold gave this as the reason he wasn't given the job, when asked.
I was prepared to make this a very short entry. For one thing, these essays are in the middle of a site that is supposed to be about the experience of re-watching films on the home screen, and as of this writing I've watched Skyfall only twice at home, in addition to the initial theatrical viewing. As later Bonds come and go, perhaps my thoughts on it will expand. At the moment, I consider it an above-average Bond film with a couple of serious flaws - in the top ranks, but I still think Quantum of Solace is a better film.
But then a friend of mine made a comment about this film being a deliberate return to "your father's Bond," and that gave me pause.
Maybe that was EON's intention. Maybe this was supposed to be the part of the reboot where we reset the clock back to your father's Bond. But that intention wasn't achievable. Couldn't have happened, and didn't. This is, in fact, not your father's Bond, despite certain surface similarities.
The primary reason this isn't your father's Bond is that this isn't your father's audience. The audience for this film, other than old farts such as myself who do not make up the majority, is composed of what I call the post-irony generation. That's actually a misnomer; what they are is the post-sincerity generation. These are the people who cannot accept any genuine sentiment if it's straightforward; it has to be either oblique or backed by an acidic layer of sarcasm or both. These are the people who trust no simple affection, who believe in no surface motivation. You can't sit these people down and expect them to enjoy your father's Bond any more than you could sit them down and expect them to enjoy a 1930's screwball comedy. The "these characters bicker tremendously but we all know they are falling deeply in love with one another as the film progresses" plot doesn't wash with this audience. They are incapable of suspending disbelief for it ... and they are, similarly, incapable of processing the 1960's Bond, a man whose hidden drives stayed hidden, who did the things he did simply because that was what he did and that was the kind of film he was in and it was not necessary to reveal any deep motivations or ask too many questions.
I grant that in some ways, the modern audience has grown more sophisticated, but in other ways, they sure have tossed a lot of corpses onto the side of the road. Not everything has to come with a side order of self-doubt or a tragic backstory. Sometimes I just want to go see a movie where things blow up because it's fun to watch things blow up.
Quantum of Solace took several paragraphs of plot summary, but is not an introspective movie at all. Bond remains opaque and so do most of the other key characters. That film is determined not to connect the dots for you; it'll let you if you like, and will give you enough information to do so, but that's your business. Skyfall's plot takes one line to describe; conversely, it is a fairly complex film with respect to characterization, at least by Bond standards. I'm not sure spelling all that stuff out as explicitly as it does is good for the film. Moreover, the amount of backstory sits uneasily with my ideas of what Bond is, and more importantly, what a Bond film should be.
You would never have seen Connery go derelict for months on a bender just because he'd been almost-fatally shot in the line of duty. You would never have seen Moore be so intensely disrespectful of his boss or any aspect of the operation. That sort of contemptuous, weary aspect of Bond came later. Now, admittedly, it was definitely present in Fleming's later books, when Fleming had gotten sick of the character and was running out of ideas, but the films always removed those bits, because that's not what the 60's and 70's film idea of Bond was. And if we tried to have that Bond now - the Bond who just does things because that's his job, and doesn't have time for introspection of any kind - it wouldn't fly with the post-irony audience.
The flip side is that Javier Bardem's character's bullshit he's constantly spouting throughout the picture would not have been popular in 1965. That audience would have said he talked too much. They'd have been right. The idea of full character development for M - really? asks our hypothetical 1965 filmgoer. Isn't the whole point of M that he's not a fully-fleshed character? It's not his job to be anything more than a gruff backstop/authority figure for Bond. I think if you tried to flesh out M in 1965 the way Judi Dench gradually fleshed out the character in her appearances, someone would ask you why this material was deemed necessary. Slows down the film, which is supposed to be about Bond shooting things and causing trouble and having sex.
I'm not saying we should go back to the 1960's Bond, you understand, even if there were a chance in hell of it working. I like the direction the films have gone - up to a point. I'm just saying: This is not your father's Bond. We can't go back, and we probably shouldn't.
Anyway, confining ourselves to the present day: Bardem's character talks too much. He self-justifies too much. His abilities - the number of things he has anticipated and planned for - verge on implausible. I don't really buy his arguments about the way he and Bond are connected to M as sort of a twisted mother figure. (Ask yourself: If this M were male, would this line of thought appear more obviously to be the bullshit it is?)
To his credit, Craig's Bond isn't buying any of it either, and his unconcealed and justifiable contempt of Bardem's character throughout is the actual anchor of the film. Bond, after his inexcusable opening, has his eyes firmly on the truth and a goal all the way through, and his pursuit of that truth shows what Bond is like at his best - an unstoppable force.
The same cannot be said of M, though. Although this is surely Judi Dench's best turn as M, and certainly her meatiest, this is a compromised M, one who admits - to the audience, if perhaps not to any of the other characters - that she is not certain of her ground. She pretends she doesn't believe any of Bardem's character's insinuations, but when she thinks everyone's back is turned, she actually does. She has doubts. And that's what finishes her. M must always look absolutely bulletproof; a cardinal rule has been broken. This is the sort of risk you take when you convert your symbols into real characters.
The best angle in the film, in terms of backstory, is the idea that Bond and Bardem's character are near-miss clones of one another; that either is what the other could have become if things had just gone a little differently. Of course this gets completely neglected, just as the writers neglected it in The Man With The Golden Gun (where it was also the best idea in the film). Some day, somewhere, I shall rant about this at length. Is it because they're scared to call attention to just how close Bond is to being a sociopath?
All this theorizing. I have fallen victim to the very thing I am complaining about. Very well, then.
It's a good film, with good performances. Ben Whishaw makes one completely-out-of-character Idiot Plot goof as Q, which programmer/hacker types in the audience find impossible to forgive, but otherwise is an excellent Q for the new era. Naomie Harris, as already mentioned, is flawless. Rory Kinnear is very good (you feel for him, caught in a bad spot between Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes). Fiennes, whom I often dislike intensely, does a good job evolving from a dislikeable character to a supportive one in just a few scenes. Helen McCrory turns up for a few minutes to be awesome. And Albert Finney appears just in time to almost rescue the end of the film.
My primary structural gripe with the film is that it comes to an end nearly half an hour later than it should. The whole sequence in Scotland is unnecessary and far more drawn-out than I want at that point in a film which has already run close to two hours. It is extremely dark, so dark it's hard to make out the action unless something is actively exploding. It's very blue-and-orange, the combination lazy filmmakers love which happens to make my eyes bleed if there's more than five minutes of it. If it weren't for Finney, and for the sight of M making homebrew IEDs, I'd call it a dead loss.
You may have noticed that I've said "Bardem's character" in every reference above. Can you remember the name of the character? No cheating. Can you remember where in the film is the one place his name is given? (They may refer to him by surname alone a few times after that, hastily and in the middle of other events, but there's only one place where they actually mention it in full.)
While you're at it, can you remember the name of Berenice Marlohe's character? She does say it. In the casino. At least with Naomie Harris' character there's a reason they don't use her name!
It's astonishing how much of this film takes place in London, especially when you recall that MI6 is not permitted to operate domestically. Of course this script is structured to sidestep around that. Still, it was strange and a bit refreshing to see so many mundane-by-comparison locations in a Bond film. Many of the street-level scenes (especially parts of the chase sequence and Whitehall exteriors) were genuinely filmed on location, too, which must have been a total pain in the ass to arrange. The Charing Cross tube station was also used for real, standing in for Temple and Westminster stations.
The abandoned island is based on a real place, Hashima Island. The real reason for its abandonment is much more prosaic; it was built as a coal-mining operation, and when the mine was no longer profitable, it was closed down and everyone left. The boat approach footage is really of the island, but the scenes on the island proper are all sets.
Some sequences of this film were shot on location in Shanghai, making this the first Bond to actually shoot any part in China. (Hong Kong appears in Golden Gun, but, dear children, it was not Chinese then.) The glass-walled set for the skyscraper interior, however, was done at Pinewood.
The underground train crash was done on the Pinewood 007 Stage at full size. The fabricated train was much lighter than a real train but still weighed some seven tons. The shot was deemed too dangerous for on-set personnel and was shot entirely with remote cameras.
This film received the most Oscar nominations (five) of any Bond film to date and won the most (two - sound effects and song) of any to date. This breaks a dry Oscar spell of forty-seven years (none since Thunderball).
Apparently the role of Kincade was written with Sean Connery in mind, which would have been all kinds of wrong. Mendes convinced Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli that it was a bad idea before anyone could actually approach Connery about it.
I was going to link to a clip of "Boum!" the fun and very silly Charles Trenet song that plays on the loudspeakers on the abandoned island, but every time I find it on YouTube it gets taken down within days, because its copyright holders are apparently very concerned about how pirate clips will affect the sales of a French novelty hit from 1938.
If you freeze and look very closely, you will find that M's name is Olivia Mansfield. This is possibly a very obscure in-joke. Olivia is Dench's middle name, and the real-life original of "M" was "C" - (George) Mansfield (Smith-)Cumming, first head of what became MI6, who initialled documents with a "C." Fleming, it is sometimes theorized, took "M" from Cumming's other name, although he named the character Miles Messervy. Note, please, also, Gareth Mallory's surname.
Speaking of in-jokes, the bottle of 1962 Scotch Bardem's character offers Bond a drink from is possibly a reminder of the franchise's 50th anniversary in 2012.
M's house in this film is actually the former home of the late John Barry, long-time Bond composer.
The priesthole/tunnel in Skyfall implies strongly that Bond's family were recusant (illicit) Catholics, which I find a bit tricky to countenance, but one is not responsible for the habits (or religions) of one's ancestors, I suppose ....
As is traditional (see Dr.No), when the plot involves a stolen painting, EON has chosen to depict one which is actually stolen. The painting being viewed by the art collector in Shanghai when he gets shot is a Modigliani, called "Woman With a Fan." It was stolen from the Paris Museum of Modern Art in 2010. It hasn't been recovered as of this writing. If you see it, give them a call.
James Bond Will Return
All material on this site is under copyright by its author, except for quotations and images used for purposes of commentary (and which belong to their respective owners/authors). All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without express permission. Correspondence goes to projectionist at shrunkencinema dot com. No guarantees. Contents may settle during shipping; this product is sold by weight, not by volume.
These pages and their author have absolutely no affiliation whatsoever with Ian Fleming (Glidrose) Publications, EON Productions, Danjaq LLC, MGM/UA or any other creators of the James Bond novels or films.