Friday, 22 February 2013

Barry Norman could be right – Skyfall may just be the best Bond film ever

We had a little treat last night. I went out and got some fish and chips and then we fired up Skyfall on Sky’s On Demand service. As I’d missed the title sequence due to faffing around with the grub, I decided to watch the opening five minutes again this lunchtime – and ended up watching the whole damn thing once more from beginning to end, enjoying it even more the second time. What a great film!

Casino Royale was a commendable attempt to reinvent Bond for the Noughties. Quantum of Solace opted for ruthless violence and a plethora of breathlessly-edited action sequences, but somehow the essence of Bond – the Scottish directness, the ironic humour and casual cruelty of someone educated at an English boarding school – got lost along the way: to employ an analogy I once used to describe Bert Weedon’s attempts at rock ‘n’ roll, Daniel Craig’s second outing felt as if someone had described old Bond movies to everyone involved, but they hadn’t actually got round to watching any of them.

The makers of Quantum of Solace were evidently panicked by the frenzied pace of the Bourne films – but that only works if the central character is a cipher, a machine, as Bourne is meant to be. I also suspect the sheer glowering thuggishness of Daniel Craig’s face led them astray. Let’s face it, he looks more like a vertically-challenged Eastern European gangster than a former Royal Navy Commander – you can see him as a Russian oligarch dropping his son off by helicopter at Eton, but you can’t imagine him as one of Dave or Boris’s class-mates.

With Skyfall, we’re never in any doubt that the writers, actors, producers and, most of all, the director, have watched every second of every Bond film many times over – and absolutely adored them. Sam Mendes wasn’t looking over his shoulder at rival action movie franchises – he was looking at old Bond films. Realising there was no way his leading man was going to replicate Sean Connery’s charm or his elegant, panther-like menace (let alone his height), he decided to use the fact that Daniel Craig is a far better actor than anyone who has previously played Bond to the film’s advantage – after all, there’s no point in employing someone who can really act and then giving them a script more suited to Vin Diesel.

So Mendes slowed the pace down a few notches. There’s still tons of carefully choreographed violence, but the editing isn’t of the Tourette’s variety that causes epileptic seizures in audiences: the camera’s allowed to linger, scenes are allowed to develop, and accomplished actors like Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes and Javier Bardem are actually allowed to do a bit of, you know… acting. Not too much, of course – this is, after all, an action movie. But enough for us to make some sort of emotional connection with their characters.

Apart from that, the secret to the resonance of this glorious film lies in the many unlaboured touches that put the whole thing in its historical context. We’re not just cheering this particular Bond or booing this specific baddie – we’re booing and cheering all of them, stretching back over fifty years. Mendes’s real genius here is they way he calls up all our memories of all the great Bond films – especially the first three, before Connery made the disastrous decision not to trim his exceedingly hairy eyebrows.

SPOILER ALERT: if you're one of the handful of people who haven't yet seen Skyfall, the rest of this post may jeopardise your enjoyment of the film when you finally make its acquaintance.

For instance, when Craig’s Bond “kidnaps” Judi Dench’s M and takes her to a secret lock-up in order to change cars, the light comes on to reveal that Aston Martin DB5. As they drive off in it, we hear the original Bond ur-theme, and the sound and the image together stir up our shared memories as effectively as a madeleine dipped in tea. I know how wet this is going to sound – but it actually brought a tear of delight to my eye:

Later, as the first wave of Javier Bardem’s army of henchmen appear at the Bond ancestral home with a view to killing our hero and his boss, Craig mows them down with the Aston’s built-in machine guns, first seen in Goldfinger.

Then, when Bond, inside the house, sees that Bardem has destroyed the Aston – the one thing (apart from his country) which Bond truly loves – rage crosses his face, another original Bond theme swells up, and we know his camp nemesis will soon be mincing off this mortal coil.

The title sequence is up there with Goldfinger’s – the song, “Skyfall”, could have been composed by John Barry, the Chinese dragons are wonderfully exotic and Bond shooting holes in his own multiple shadows is intriguing.

In his first Bond film, Daniel Craig, when asked whether he wants his vodka martini shaken or stirred, snarls, “Do I look like I give a damn?” In Skyfall, he watches a female bartender preparing his drink in the prescribed fashion in a Macau casino and rewards her with the purred response, “Perfect!”

Right at the end, when the latest Bond girl, who unfortunately shot him earlier in the film, and has decided to eschew field-work in favour of becoming M’s PA, finally gets round to telling Craig her name, it turns out to be Eve Moneypenny. Lovely touch.

One of the many things that felt so right about Skyfall was how much of the action takes place in Britain - in London and the Highlands, to be exact. In fact, I’m sure there are more references to Bond’s Britishness – of a serious rather than whince-inducing “Cool Britannia” nature – than in all the previous films put together. M even delivers a lengthy quote from Tennyson, which refers both to MI6, to herself, and to Britain:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
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.
On a lighter note – and in keeping with the general sense of homecoming – when Javier Bardem arrives in the Highlands for the final showdown, his heavily-armed helicopter is blasting out the John Lee Hooker song, “Boom Boom”. But the version used is the one released by a British group, The Animals, in 1964, between From Russia With Love and Goldfinger: another nice touch. I’m surprised to find myself applying the words patriotic and nostalgic to Skyfall.

Bond’s meeting with the new Q not only provides an excellent example of the quality of the script, but also underline one of the central themes of the film (of course, it’s odd to speak of a Bond film actually having a theme) – the tension between the new world of technocratic ladyboys and the old world of violent, hard-drinking, hairy-arsed, sexist blokes with guns. (Interesting that the line Sometimes, the old ways are the best is repeated twice in the film, by different characters – if that doesn’t amount to a theme, I don’t know what would):

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes from George Orwell:
People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf. 
Come to think of it, they should get that into the next Bond movie.


  1. A really excellent post which made me want to see the film again. There is more insight here than in any of the reviews of Skyfall in the printed media, but then I suppose if you were employed as a film critic, you'd have to visit a cinema along with the sweet bag rustling popcorn-munchers who contribute so much to our enjoyment as we fork out £22 for two in the stalls. I'll give the Sky+fish and chips formula a go when I see it next time.

    1. Actually, film critics are lucky enough not to have to visit ordinary cinemas with the likes of you and me. I used to dream of being a film critic. Then, when I started at the BBC, I got lots of tickets to preview screenings of new releases, which were always held in small, comfortable screening rooms in Soho with plush chairs with plenty of snacks and booze on hand. I thought I'd gone to heaven. But after a while, I realised that sitting through this many mediocre and plain bad films and finding something different to say about each of them would eventually lead to late-night phone calls to the Samaritans. I honestly don't know how anyone bears it!

      Not only did that experience cure me of any desire to be a critic, it also made it virtually impossible for me to go to cinemas, due to the swinish manners of many of the patrons. I imagine many of them now spend the entire film checking their bloody smart-phones - when they're not chatting to their mates - and that alone would drive me tonto. Having said that, we thought "Skyfall" might have been fun to see en masse - but it doesn't sound like you enjoyed the experience!

  2. I also much appreciated your review and clips and although I am not a Bond fan [I've really only seen "From Russia with Love" and the first half of "Goldfinger" - Honor Blackman, you know], but I might be tempted to see this one. Sign of a good review.

    I have an old friend whose knowledge and judgement of films I value equally with yours, but his take on this film was: "...but we did see Skyfall at the IMAX at Waterloo. It was dire, the complete lack of tension and a puerile script mitigated only slightly by the late and hilarious appearance of Albert Finney as a gnarled & bearded Scottish retainer (sort of a youthful Gronmark) with a sawn-off shotgun. Would have exited early to the pub except that we paid £20 a ticket would you believe."

    He echoes what ex-KCS says about the ticket prices. These are scandalous. How does a father afford to take his family to the cinema these days? Or his sons to a football match? The reasons, of course, are the astronomical costs of the modern block-buster film and the greed of footballers and their agents. As a result, benefit claimants and illegal Albanian immigrants are being denied traditional, basic entertainment. One for the new culture secretary - whoever that might be?

    I don't know about Craig. He was very good in "The Trench", the re-make of the first Stieg Larsen film and the one about Mossad taking its post-Munich revenge. But as you say, he doesn't quite look the part and he seems entirely humourless. [I guess I'm just annoyed because he gets to be married to the stunning Rachel Weisz]. Personally, I think they should try out Ray Winston. With his jaunty Holsten Bear walk and ability to talk entirely in cockney rhyming slang he would bring a completely new dimension to the role. Must pass this on to Miss Broccoli.

    1. Many people seem to have found it boring - it would be interesting to know if your friend found the much faster paced Quantum of Solace more to their taste. I must say, I thought Skyfall was about ten times more engaging.

      Yes, Albert Finney is from that generation of British actors who were useless at accents. But his performance in Skyfall is worth it for the scene where he blows two baddies away with a shotgun and then snarls "Welcome to Scotland!"

      Cinema prices are nothing compared to football. the only people I know who attend matches in London seem to be bankers. I have long been puzzled by how anyone who isn't in finance can afford endless restaurant, theatre, sport and cinema outings plus three or four foreign holidays a year plus send their kids to private schools. Do they know something I don't? Do they have rich parents subbing them all the time? Complete mystery to me.

      I would pay almost anything to hear Ray Winston utter the line "Oi, M - you toilet!"