Hyped sky-high, worldwide media blitzed, billboards commandeered: 007 glares out from every corner in the land.
It seems a lot of trouble to go to for just another Bond film; it even gives pause to wonder of this grand Dame of a franchise, in her fiftieth year: doth the lady protest too much? Is the party over for 007 and his backdated brand of boyish bravura?
This question is on Sam Mendes’ mind too. And 007’s, and M’s. This time it isn’t just James Bond who is the dinosaur. It’s MI6 itself.
Previous Bond franchise reboots have been about modernising a diehard chauvinist throwback. That this was quixotic and self-defeating was demonstrated by the effete outputs: Goldeneye. Die Another Day.
Sam Mendes addresses that head-on: Daniel Craig is scarred; haggard; careworn. Old. He looks like he’s had enough, even before being snipered off the roof of a goods wagon during a punch-up over a high Turkish gorge in the opening scene.
To underline the air of finality, as Bond’s body hits the water and floats into a truly old school animated opening sequence, a truly old school Bond theme strikes up, and in the fashion of a truly old school Bond chanteuse, Adele sings, to almost exactly the tune of Diamonds are Forever “This is the end”. Good gracious: they’re not declaring the innings closed, are they?
It’s a question that hangs over the two and a half hours of Skyfall.
MI6 has carelessly let its roster of embedded under-cover agents fall into terrorist hands, and now they’re being systematically whacked in full view of the world wide web. In trying to retrieve the list 007 has been shot, seemingly dead: collateral damage of a risky shot by his own colleague, Eve (Naomie Harris). A risky shot taken at the direct order of M herself, in knowledge of Bond’s jeopardy, we fear to protect herself as much as her department.
And now the net is drawing in on M herself. Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a career bureaucrat, is put in charge of the department. He wants M out in a month. All done the proper way, by dignified retirement: a very British coup.
In her eyes she knows her days are numbered, but M is having none of it, not while there’s still work to do. Dumbledore repairs to her study where her favourite boy wizard – the boy who lived – awaits. (Forgive me confusing my movie idioms: as the film progresses the similarities become ever more striking)
Time to get back to what we do best, James. Old school style. And always, confronting our right to be here: are we still relevant? Are we still understood? In the middle of this social revolution are we still fit for purpose? If we’re to best make sure we’re not redundant, how should we respond?
M’s, and Mendes’ answer: go back to basics; concentrate on what we know best. Old school.
Bond sits in contemplation at the national gallery in front of Turner’s painting of the HMS Temeraire, a willowy veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar, being towed by a steampunk tug to be scuttled. He is interrupted by a precocious teenager (Ben Whishaw), who turns out to be the new Q. But this time gimmicks are muted: a palm-print personalised Walther PPK and a miniature radio tracker. Old school. Bond reverts to his old DB5. He’s tempted to use the ejector seat on M when she’s haranguing him: Old school.
Much has been made of Javier Bardem’s villain, but this film isn’t about the villain. Raoul Silva is no Anton Chigurh; Bardem plays him almost as comic relief. His villainy is barely needed: Skyfall deals in a far more claustrophobic perfidy than him.
Things proceed with a sense of scale and grandeur that James Bond has never in my experience attained, for two and a half hours. It feels like there’s more at stake than is usually the case; it feels here that, however it ends, the Bond universe will have irreparably changed. And so it turns out. The ending is moving, profound and ingeniously it leaves the franchise ready to embark upon a next decade of adventures, with all the pieces in place.
Skyfall premieres on 23rd October and is on general release 26th.
Director: Sam Mendes
Stars: Daniel Craig, Naomie Harris, Judi Dench, Ben Whishaw, Bérénice Marlohe, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, Albert Finney
Running time: 143 min