Saturday, 17 November 2012
Skyfall (2012, Sam Mendes)
With the help from a tight collaborative unit led by director Sam Mendes, the James Bond franchise takes a celebratory look back over its 50 years while offering a much needed solid instalment, putting it back on track. There is plenty to praise here and Skyfall is largely a return to form while covering new ground; but as the filmmakers, and Bond himself, re-evaluate his place in the modern world it makes for a fun self referential ride without promising much of a future for this still wavering hero.
Starting in Istanbul we're dropped in the middle of a mission tinkering on the edge of failure, as Bond embarks on a chase to retain some stolen data from the hands of an unknown. The sequence is stunning in execution with events unfurling and becoming increasingly perilous with each turn. If the dazzling opening to Casino Royale was the benchmark to beat, the yardstick as now been moved with Bond utilising cars, bikes, trains, and diggers.
Skyfall has running through it, an overt sense of not only resurrection but also reinvention, with the opening events culminating to a fitting finale of which the Adele aided title sequence takes us through. The story here is much to do with M (Judi Dench) facing her past and to be trialled, unsanctioned, by a unfortunate past event echoed in the suspenseful pre-credits conclusion. With M's life in danger and the identity of undercover agents at risk Bond returns to duty as scarred and unfit as ever before to put things right. Despite some tremendous set pieces and examples of action, the film offers a new dynamic on the oedipal relationship of M to Bond and unearths details of his past, setting him as opposite side of the same coin to Javier Bardem's chillingly portrayed Mr. Silva.
Bardem makes for a classic Bond villain and really the only memorable one so far in the series donning Daniel Craig. His hair, like his Oscar winning villain of Anton Chigurh, is unnatural and at odds with his setting. His lines delivered with a camp menace, effeminate but never leaving you to question his power for punishment. Silva is also given a stunning entrance, executed in a controlled manner seldom seen in modern films of this level; as Silva is seen from a distance coming down a lift, he delivers a speech to a helpless Bond in a long-take as the camera slowly zooms from over Bond's shoulder into a tight close-up. It's this kind of lensing that truly sets Skyfall apart as Roger Deakins photography steals the show. In a battle against a sniper Bond fights his opponent against the surrealist neon lights of Shanghai, a tense showdown of false reflections and shadows marking a major highlight of the film.
This extra level of artistry and drama elevates Skyfall from an average Bond movie, with a Brit director of theatre bringing his world famous cinematographer and composer on board with him it's impossible to imagine it going any other way. Though as the film certainly covers new ground and presents us with a fully realised world compared to the familiar or fragmented nature of past efforts there are undeniable problems that lead this newest instalment to be somewhat disappointing, if only for the tantalising possibilities it lays down from the start. Skyfall has not one but two 'Bond Girls'; Eve (Naomi Harris) is a field agent seen in the opening Istanbul sequence promising a new perspective on a woman's place in the Bond world. After such feisty promise of a character with much to give she is sidelined into flat scenes in which she seduces Bond and in the end chooses a desk job over the field. Even more frustrating is the treatment of Bérénice Marlohe's femme fatale, who after being introduced as an untrustworthy tragic figure not so distant from Bond's own past, is disposed of without a second thought. Even the climactic showdown between Silva feels thwarted compared with what came before it. There is much to marvel in Skyfall but enough examples of deflation to go alongside them.
As Bond steps into an Aston Martin DB5 he doesn't just figuratively step into his past but literally drives back to his childhood home where an unspoken trauma is made known, an event in the past which led to the death of his parents and the meeting of M. The manor of which he grew up is grande in the Scottish valley with Deakins creating awe-inspiring visuals both beautiful and haunting. As the film shifts into this gear it feels less a Bond film and more a home invasion scenario, a still tense portion as Bond, his old grounds keeper (Albert Finney), and M defend against the overwhelming forces of Silva. Thomas Newman's terrific score also becomes more apparent as throughout his arrangements flit and mix between ultra modern and the classical, fitting with the position our hero and M find themselves in.
Skyfall certainly makes for a thrilling ride, one which hits levels of drama not seen before in the franchise as we're taken into the dark depths of some familiar characters' pasts. Yet despite all the film's insightful retrospection and trips into nostalgia (on its 50th anniversary it was bound to happen) it's the future that lays troublingly open. It makes known that Bond is at odds with the modern world, gadgets aren't of any use because anyone on the street has advanced technology now and allegorically the representation of women puts the Bond figure in a state far from the days of Dr. No misogyny. So as much as watching Daniel Craig as Bond in all his damaged marvel and traumatic ties is riveting due to the actor's unmistakable command of the character, Skyfall sees the franchise deal with its own past and come to terms with the world it finds itself but this cathartic episode doesn't leave much hope as to how much further it can travel.