Reviews

Skyfall

3

History repeating, James Bond is back. In time…

Hanging around with her Maj, knocking back the Heinekens: James Bond had a fantastic 50th birthday.

And then there was Skyfall: the first 007 movie to hit a billion dollars worldwide, and the first one ever to earn £100m in the UK.

Its success became so stratospheric that five Oscar nods - a franchise record - was somehow considered a disappointment. But why?

Pre-release hype only goes so far, and that swell of Team GB pride hardly guaranteed a gold medal finish. Were party fever all that mattered, 40th anniversary installment Die Another Day would be a classic.

Ultimately, then, it was down to the film itself to capture the spirit of this great series, something it managed in epically spine-tingling fashion.

In one sense, Skyfall’s success stems from pulling off the rare trick of appealing to everybody.

Art-house aficionados were swayed by the hire of American Beauty’s Sam Mendes as director, but fans of Roger Moore-era silliness could still enjoy the sight of Daniel Craig threatened by Komodo dragons. Even the grey pound was catered for in a final act resembling The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with sawn-off shotguns.

And yet Skyfall is as notable for what’s not on screen as for what is.

As Mendes explains in his thoughtful commentary, his intention throughout was to confound expectations. The usually triumphant opening sequence? Bond is left for dead. The jet-setting? Bond racks up more Oyster journeys than air miles.

And it goes on. Ben Whishaw’s geeky new Q doesn’t really go in for exploding pens; the Bond girl turns out to be Judi Dench’s M; and the final showdown takes place, not in the villain’s lair, but on Bond’s home turf in Scotland.

OK, so this feels more like a distancing from 007’s excesses than a celebration of them. Yet Mendes’ instincts, however counter-intuitive, are bang on.

Skyfall focuses the mind on essentials far better than another generic joining of the dots would, forcing us to keep up without the comfort of familiarity. And while we’re trying to keep up, so, ironically, is Bond.

Skyfall mirrors a key theme of The Dark Knight Rises in presenting Bond as a broken, out-of-shape wreck.

For Christopher Nolan, those nagging thoughts of obsolescence were about closure. For Mendes, though, it’s a metaphor for Bond’s relevance now that he’s eligible for Saga membership.

With Bond’s fitness, mental and physical, under the microscope, the big question is whether an old-school Bond movie can survive in today’s cinematic landscape.

The answer is ingenious. In the red corner, representing the here and now, is Javier Bardem’s camp, flirtatious Silva, a bizarro version of Bond who has reinvented himself in body (check out the dentures!) and soul to forge an ultra-modern career as a cyber-terrorist.

In effect, he’s an avatar for those naughty Bond movies of old which pimped themselves out to the hottest contemporary fads, from Moonraker’s Star Wars shenanigans to Quantum Of Solace’s Bourne-lite stylings.

To fight him and find his mojo, Bond, like Austin Powers, must go back in time. And it’s here that Mendes’ theatrical roots come to the fore, teasing out subtleties through autumnal textures and elegiac moods.

And he goes classical as well, hiding modern techniques behind old-fashioned virtues.

There’s an extraordinary amount of CGI trickery in the film, but you’ll need to watch hour-long doc Shooting Bond or listen to the producers’ drily nuts-and-bolts commentary to spot the joins.

Emboldened by formidable cinematography from Roger Deakins, Mendes unifies location filming, studio work and post-production tinkering to ensure that everything in the movie is “an expansion of the real”.

Much as the fanboy in Mendes was channelling the “inner 12-year-old” who once owned a model DB5, the action has to make sense: no QOS-style jump-cuts here. So the brilliant opening sequence thrives on realism.

Yes, that really is Daniel Craig risking a real-life skyfall as he fights on top of a train going 60 mph. And Mendes only added a helicopter to the otherwise claustrophobic climax when he realised it would enhance Silva’s characterisation.

Despite these thrills, at its best Skyfall is a chamber piece in which Craig, Dench and Bardem spar for 007’s soul. (Mendes was so adamant about replacing the usual expositionary waffle with real depth of character that he reshot the crucial first meeting between Bond and M to add greater shading and ambiguity.)

Craig and Dench respond with series-best work, and the emphasis on their unspoken affection lingers long after the wow factor of tube train crashes or Home Alone booby-traps has faded.

As for Bond himself: well, he’s passed his medical, hasn’t he? With allusions to Churchill, Turner and Tennyson, Skyfall proudly measures up 007 as a national icon. As a satisfied Mendes points out, James Bond is “still going stronger than ever.”

That’s exactly what audiences wanted to cap off a year of unusual, unabashed patriotism, but it’s also one hell of a birthday present.

Film Details