Bonding with history: Skyfall’s postmodern 007

[Warning: spoilers!]

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.

So recites Judi Dench’s M midway through Skyfall, quoting Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’. As Thomas Newman’s soundtrack swells and Daniel Craig’s Bond tears on foot through Whitehall, it’s clear the text points to him as much as post-imperial Britain: like Ulysses, better known by his Greek name Odysseus, this film’s Bond is an aging sea dog come home, world-weary, after being lost in action, his kingdom fallen into disrepair. Skyfall, Bond’s own odyssey, is the franchise’s most strongly intertextual entry, classicist touches woven through its story. Even the famous Walther PPK, now fireable solely by him, is recast in Homeric terms, mirroring the bow only Odysseus is capable of drawing, proving his identity; Bond too is defined by his prowess as a marksman, not what it was since his exile – ‘Is there’, Javier Bardem’s villain asks during a shooting contest, ‘any of the old 007 left?’ – and it’s only in the film’s third act, when finally he regains his expert aim, that we know for sure Bond isn’t dead. (If the antique parallels seem contrived or unlikely, director Sam Mendes read English at Cambridge and co-writer John Logan penned Gladiator twelve years before.)

M’s speech namechecking Tennyson is itself a defence of old-fashioned, clandestine espionage. Earlier, as future successor Mallory worries MI6 are viewed as ‘antiquated idiots’, he admonishes her, ‘For Christ’s sake, listen to yourself. We’re a democracy, and we we’re accountable to the people we’re trying to defend. We can’t keep working in the shadows. There are no more shadows.’

‘You don’t get this, do you?’ M replies. ‘Whoever’s behind this, whoever’s doing it, he knows us. He’s one of us. He comes from the same place as Bond, the place you say doesn’t exist: the shadows.’ When interrogated at a government inquiry, she says this:

Today I’ve repeatedly heard how irrelevant my department has become. Why do we need agents, the double-0 section? Isn’t it all rather quaint? Well, I suppose I see a different world than you do, and the truth is that what I see frightens me. I’m frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map, they’re not nations. They are individuals. And look around you: who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No. Our world is not more transparent now, it’s more opaque. It’s in the shadows. That’s where we must do battle. So before you declare us irrelevant, ask yourselves: how safe do you feel?

That Skyfall should be Dench’s final Bond film seems fitting, since this perfectly inverts the modernist aesthetic of the Pierce Brosnan era, in whose opener GoldenEye she first appeared. (Both films, incidentally, are named for Bond’s infant homes – in the latter case, the Jamaican house were Ian Fleming first conceived of him.) When Casino Royale rejigged the series continuity, depicting 007’s first mission, producers impressed by Dench’s M reportedly kept her on despite this complicating the timeline; to view her in GoldenEye and Skyfall side by side, it’s clear her two Ms are very different characters. On first meeting Brosnan’s Bond in 1995 that M – formerly a finance executive, dubbed ‘evil queen of numbers’ by Michael Kitchen’s Tanner – famously called him ‘a sexist misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War’, while the Craig era’s M has by contrast been a spymaster for decades, even declaring in Casino Royale that she misses the Cold War. By Skyfall M has come full circle from dogged forward progress to nostalgia, and so has the franchise.

Just as the First World War prompted literary modernism, so the USSR’s collapse prompted GoldenEye and films that followed – in a world where things had fallen apart, establishment and status quo crumbling in on themselves, they reached for innovation. Brosnan’s Bond wore a European businessman’s Brioni, wielded gadgetry more colourful than ever at the dawn of the online age and embodied the Blair governments’ fetish for New Britain: this 007 scaled the Millennium Dome, rappelled down the side of the Eden Project and worked at Vauxhall Cross, the new, nineties home of MI6, with Samantha Bond’s more PC Moneypenny, romantically emancipated and (in GoldenEye at least) dating someone else. In Tomorrow Never Dies and Die Another Day, Bond’s love interests (Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry) were fellow agents from China and the U.S., whom he, filmmakers seemed overkeen to show us, was adept at satisfying sexually. As women of colour, in both cases, became his lovers, so MI6 grew interracial, Colin Salmon’s Charles Robinson replacing Tanner as chief aide to M.

The urge to modernise was, in the end, what alienated fans and almost tanked the series – particularly via 2002’s CGI-laden, bullet-time-ridden Die Another Day. Bringing Bond and his setting up to date meant bringing it away from Fleming, whose hero was an anachronism even at the time of his invention. Bond is an Eton old boy and naval Commander, pitched in Live and Let Die – written in the prelude to the U.S. civil rights movement – against criminally violent black people, and against cat-eating Koreans in Goldfinger. (‘Bond intended to stay alive on his own terms’, Fleming writes. ‘Those terms included putting Odd-Job or any other Korean firmly in place, which in Bond’s estimation was lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.’) He is the gamekeeper, as Den of Geek’s James Peaty writes, of an Empire whose absence his creator gravely mourned, and which is being fast deserted by the world around him. With his colonial instincts, ‘corrective’ seduction of Pussy Galore – her name originally refers not to what she has, but what she gets – and rage at fifty years of female emancipation, Bond is written as a man out of time, or steadfastly refusing, at least, to move with it.

The same could easily be said of him in Skyfall, which makes a point of its heroes feeling out of date. ‘You know the rules of the game’, M tells Bond. ‘You’ve been playing it long enough.’

‘We both have,’ he replies. ‘Maybe too long.’

It’s not just MI6 here which faces being deemed antiquated. Bond himself is older and slower than when we saw him last, ‘made weak by time and fate’ like Ulysses, struggling to stay in what Mallory calls a young man’s game. He is matched, moreover, against Bardem’s technoterrorist and with Ben Whishaw’s millennial Q, who chides him as a mere triggerman in the age of cyberwarfare. Bond’s argument, M’s, and the film’s as a whole is that triggermen today are needed; that as espionage and global conflict post-9/11 have been individualised (Silva, the film’s villain, rigs national elections from his solitary lair), so shadowy, individual cloak-and-dagger spies have become relevant again. Where keyboard warrior Q is tricked by Silva, after all, it’s Craig’s low-tech, antediluvian 007 who finally undoes him. The Brosnan era argued Bond could be modern, keeping up with a world turned on its head; now that the world has turned again, and late nineties modernity itself seems dated, Skyfall suggests Bond is needed because he’s old-fashioned.

It’s not by accident that this film uproots all its own most contemporary elements. At the outset, M and Tanner (now played by Rory Kinnear) supervise Bond in Turkey from Vauxhall Cross, all flatscreens and gizmos – the same gizmos, it turns out, which allow Silva to access MI6’s computer network and destroy the building, prompting a change of scene to underground Churchillian bunkers of 18th century origin. Bond only gains the upper hand, in the film’s third act, by isolating himself and M on a Scottish moor, no servers or cables in sight: between the restoration era house of the film’s title, the 1964 Aston Martin unearthed to journey there and the family rifle with which Bond finally shoots straight, nothing in Skyfall’s climax belongs to the present. Here, too, Dench – sole remaining cast member from the Brosnan years – is written out, replaced by Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory, whose gender and background return us to Fleming’s M. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, declaring ‘Some work of noble note may yet be done’, Bond returns to adventure at the film’s close, finding himself back in M’s oak-panelled, leather-doored office of old. (HMS Victory even hangs in painting on the wall, touching multivalently both on Bond’s and MI6’s revival – the ‘grand old war ship’, in Q’s words, may not after all be ‘ignominiously hauled away to scrap’ – and the vessel which ‘puffs her sails’, calling to Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem.) Eve, previously a field agent in the vein of Brosnan’s leading women, is revealed to be Miss Moneypenny, seated at the familiar desk to flirt with 007.

Skyfall is a truly postmodern Bond film, a metafiction about the series’ own continued relevance, by far its most thematic and thoughtful entry. Ironically, I wonder if as a standalone film on its own terms, this stops it working as successfully – if in its reliance on the intertextual, it sacrifices self-sufficient storytelling. Did I, for example, want or need particularly to find out about Bond’s childhood home? Isn’t he, on a certain level, more interesting as a killer with no clear provenance? It’s a wonderfully indulgent moment as a fan, moreover, to rewatch Bond, M, Tanner and Moneypenny in the courtroom sequence, Fleming’s most familiar lineup reunited in a pitched gun battle, but I also have to wonder: what were Eve and Mallory doing in this film, other than awaiting unveilment in more famous roles? Aren’t we, by suspecting this, perhaps distracted on some level from their self-contained characterisation, just as we might have been had Sean Connery, as considered at one point, played groundskeeper Kincade instead of Albert Finney? Just as the elements of classic Bond here – the DB5, say, or M’s office – feel somehow hollow in diegesis, stripped of their meaning in the series’ broader context, these characters never quite seem fully formed and immersive, as did Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and her interplay with Craig’s Bond. Likewise, Silva’s relationship with him never seems quite as real as that of Mads Mikkelsen’s blood-weeping Le Chiffre.

Where some knocked Royale as a great film but unsatisfying Bond film, I wonder if the reverse applies to Skyfall. (I’ve a great deal of time for both, and more regard than most for the much-derided Quantum of Solace in between, but still think Royale edges ahead.) How will the old-school aesthetic re-established by the close of Sam Mendes’ film serve Bond 24 on his directorial return? How will the new-old world of oak panels, secretarial flirting and mission dossiers stamped TOP SECRET serve its plot, when these things’ purpose is no longer just semiotic? I’m not sure. One thing is certain, though: after reflective, thought-provoking Skyfall, I trust that Mendes can deliver.

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In defence of Quantum of Solace

[Warning: spoilers!]

Everyone seemed to love Skyfall on its release. Papers listed it among the top few Bond films, reviewers heaped praise on it and Sam Mendes and Adele’s return for Bond 24 met with popular demand. I liked it a lot, myself, though in hindsight slightly prefer 2006’s Casino Royale, in which Daniel Craig debuts and Mads Mikkelsen’s villain (seven years pre-Hannibal) chews the scenery into succulent, meaty chunks. The interceding entry in the series, Quantum of Solace, is the one fans and critics alike seem to have hated – and no, Quantum isn’t brilliant. It’s not on the level of the other two by any means; equally though, it isn’t terrible. Certainly, it isn’t the car crash often recalled.

I recognise the film’s problems. It’s the shortest of all the Bonds, sandwiched between the longest two to date, and also the most violent – an entirely unproductive combination. Royale was gritty in its depiction of a bruised and bleeding hero, but its glamour, humour and storytelling finesse meant it never relied on action; Quantum exhibits not much else. To a large extent, this comes down to the 2007-8 writers’ strike – by the time of filming, the film’s script was only partially completed, leaving the cast and director Marc Forster to devise scenes. It shows: one moment Craig’s Bond is dispatching the icy pith familiar to viewers of the previous film, the next he’s left dependent on pick-up lines like ‘Come up and help me find the stationery.’ (Seriously. Bond says that.) Beyond technical and visual aspects, much of the film just feels underdeveloped, and it suffers greatly as a result. Still though, I don’t think its faults sink it.

Except for single-filmer George Lazenby, each of the past Bonds had a misstep or two: Connery had Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever, Moore had Moonraker, Brosnan had Die Another Day. (Moore’s Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy, plus Timothy Dalton’s Licence to Kill, are borderline for me.) If Quantum of Solace is remembered as Craig’s weakest note, it still stands tall next to most of these.

In fact, thanks largely to the talents of its cast, Quantum is far, far better than its half-baked screenplay might have meant. Beside Judi Dench’s reliably spiky M, both main villains deserve special credit: with his Jokeresque laughter under interrogation and quipping, ‘Tosca isn’t for everyone’ disdain, Jesper Christensen takes previously nondescript Mr. White straight to magnificent bastard status, and Matthieu Amalric radiates creepiness, predacity and danger as Dominic Greene, particularly when onscreen with Olga Kurylenko’s Camille – the scene where he threatens to throw her from a balcony is a rare moment in which a Bond villain feels genuinely unsettling, someone you wouldn’t ever want to meet.

Camille herself won’t be going in the Bond woman hall of fame any time soon, but feels like the major casualty of the partial script; had she been given more time and development, perhaps she’d have come across in deliberate contrast to predecessor Vesper Lynd, as a grittier, less refined but similarly wounded and courageous character instead of an inadequate stand-in. The climactic moment when Camille hunches panicked amid a fire, Bond trying to get through to her, echoes his and Vesper’s shower scene from Royale, and it seems her story might have been just as compelling if fully developed. Gemma Arterton feels equally neglected as agent Fields, though her scenes with Craig and Giancarlo Giannini’s René Mathis crackle with wit and charm, and her death scene – an oily twist on Shirley Eaton’s in Goldfinger – is legitimately harrowing.

This film, unusually for Bond, devotes earnest attention to violence against women: where elsewhere in the franchise this is fetishised, here it’s a theme. Camille’s mother and sister were raped, as quite possibly Fields is before her death, and Greene’s relationship with her is shown transparently as abusive; that a trail of murdered women follows Bond is even commented on by M. (‘Look how well your charm works, James’, she says, surveying Arterton’s nude corpse. ‘They’ll do anything for you. How many is that now?’) Unlike other ‘kept women’ in prior films, however, Camille is not seduced by 007 – in fact, in Bond’s closest encounter to date with feminism, it is she who ultimately abandons him, acknowledging his damaged emotional state. Seeing Bond’s torment play out through alcoholism and sleeplessness is itself captivating – Craig is at his tense, brooding best in these moments, and it’s a shame, again, that he’s left little else to do by the film’s unfinished script.

My inner jury is still out on Marc Forster’s direction. Certain cosmetic elements visibly jar: the stylised title cards for the story’s locations feel out of place, for instance, and like the dialogue’s subtitles, don’t match their components in Royale. (It may not seem important, but I notice these things – you have no idea how much it bothers me that the colour and size of the onscreen text changes.) I’m still not sure, moreover, why Forster provides subtitles for two Bolivian extras’ in-taxi exchange. Footage of villagers during a drought captures the travelogue flavour of Fleming’s writing perfectly, though, and in a film over-reliant on action, it’s a good job Forster directs it exquisitely – the scaffold sequence in the opening minutes, in particular, is executed perfectly, and if anything feels like a more natural place for the opening titles to have gone; the rooftop chase leading up to it, similarly, is amazing even as a lesser retread of the Parkour chase from the previous film, and the aerial confrontation just before the final act, while at moments difficult to follow, spectacular. Other highlights include Bond’s hand-to-hand battle with Edmund Slate, one of the whole series’ best fight scenes in terms of both choreography and camerawork, and the entire, breathtaking showdown at the Bregenz opera.

There and elsewhere, Dennis Gassner’s set designs channel the sixties cleanliness of the Connery era: while we don’t get the Shanghai skyline’s modern mystique or the natural beauty of Scotland as in Skyfall, the backdrops of MI6’s new headquarters, M’s apartment, Mathis’ villa and Bond and Fields’ hotel are effortlessly cool. In the case of the operahouse, too, Gassner’s forensic aesthetic helps create a real sense of menace, framing the ensuing shoot-out’s violence like meat on glimmering ice in a butcher’s shop. Quantum, the organisation whose meeting Bond disrupts here, is a superb creation – a kind of global capitalist, 21st century SPECTRE, manipulating world politics for the highest bidder. ‘We’ll supply the private security,’ Greene tells Medrano. ‘We’ll pay off the right officials, and we have twenty-six countries ready to recognise your new, official Bolivian government.’ Chilling indeed. With its boat chase, embattled lead woman, political corruption and gangsterism, and with Bond out of place in a deprived area, the film sometimes brings Live and Let Die to mind – it’s pretty good, too, seeing Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter caught up behind the scenes in shady manoeuvring.

Louise Frogley’s costuming often feels uninspired, particularly in the case of Craig, on whom wider ties and conservative-cut suits just don’t sit right (compare them, for example, to his narrow three-pieces in Skyfall). Bond’s clothes, however, are used to good effect – we see him start out in one outfit at Port au Prince, requisitioning a jacket when needed to cover a knife wound, fly to Austria thus dressed, scavenge for a dinner jacket in the opera’s laundry area, then switch back to his previous outfit keeping the dress shirt. These might seem like trivial details, but deployed in the film, they enhance the sense of a spy on the run, improvising with all resources available – somehow I’m more invested than I would be with Bond’s usual Barbarella wardrobe.

More and more, I’m convinced Quantum’s biggest flaws are in its first few minutes. The opening shot, gliding across Lake Garda to David Arnold’s throbbing strings, has a real air of menace, but the car chase it introduces feels perfunctory and empty. (And why, additionally, has Bond paused to remove his waistcoat since the end of Casino Royale, supposedly only minutes earlier?) ‘Another Way To Die’, the much-loathed theme song by Jack White and Alicia Keys, has greatly grown on me since I first heard it – White’s lyrics and the shrieking, orgasmic guitars of the middle eight blend passion and danger as only Bond can, and the composition hangs more elegantly together than I thought – but the recut three-minute version used for the opening titles does the song no justice, and I wish Arnold had been in charge of its brass and horn sections. Again, the titles should have played after a moment more dramatic than a car’s boot being opened, and Forster’s freeze frame feels distinctly wrong, but while on seeing the film I wished Daniel Kleinman’s chunky graphics from Royale had returned, I’ve come to admire the sequence’s motifs – Bond roaming the desert, gun pointed in every direction, shadowy female forms rising from the sand.

Both films’ theme songs, in the end, epitomise them: where Skyfall was stylish and classic but sometimes slipped from homage to pastiche, Quantum initially felt crude and structureless, too seemingly reliant on percussion, but improves on repeated encounter. Maybe it wasn’t a Royale flush, but if you loathed it in the cinema five years back and haven’t seen it again since, give it another chance – you might find it’s better than you remember.

See also: Bonding with history – Skyfall‘s postmodern 007

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