And now for something totally different…
After 50 years, this 23rd instalment of the James Bond film franchise has just raised the bar and anchored its place in the 21st century spy action genre. Ian Fleming has long passed, but his iconic character lives on, portrayed and later resurrected by different suave British actors beginning with, and still my man, Sean Connery, to now Daniel Craig.
Resurrection is the word. You’ll hear it, and see its effect, for with Skyfall, looks like the franchise has just been resuscitated to a brand new life, just like the hero in the film. Kudos to Sam Mendes, the Oscar winning director who helmed such human drama as American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, working with cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose talent has enhanced some of my favorite films like Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, A Serious Man, True Grit…
So what we have is a slick and stylish action thriller but not just in form. Sure, Daniel Craig in his Tom Ford suit, always standing straight and legs apart is all about style, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Here, we see some internal tapping into the Bond character, just enough to tie over to the next action sequence. And we see too Bond shedding a few tears, for a good reason.
The villain is Javier Bardem. The cold-blooded psychotic killer in No Country for Old Men is just as ruthless and haunting here, but with a change in hair-do. He is Raoul Silva, a vengeful ex-MI6 agent who has gotten hold of a list of all the identities of MI6 agents embedded in terrorist organizations. His pleasure is to kill them down the list. Bardem’s image of Silva reminds me of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, especially the scene with that transparent cylindrical cage… just gives away what would be coming next.
And our beloved Judie Dench, who’s so versatile that one minute you see her in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the next transported into MI6 headquarters as M. Of course, she’s long been M before Marigold. In Skyfall, Dench deservedly gets more significant screen time than in previous Bond movies. In a later part of the film, M is called to a public hearing to justify her actions and even the existence of MI6. She has some powerful lines which make the scene so gratifying. Her voice-over juxtaposes with the urgent sequence in which we see the villain Silva leaving a trail of violence heading over to get her. Here are the poignant lines she delivers, from Tennyson’s poem ‘Ulysses':
Though 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.
Can you sense a bit how this is quite a different Bond film?
A fine cast is always the major asset. Another veteran is Albert Finney, who appears almost incognito (to me that is) but a good match with Dench.
With the new life comes two new faces. Both are excellent choices. One is Ralph Fiennes, and he definitely suits the part. Another is Ben Whishaw. Can’t imagine his transformation from John Keats in Bright Star to the digitally savvy young Q. Playing alongside Craig, Whishaw makes an interesting contrast, the gun-wielding old-timer in the field and the young computer geek in the office, taking control of situations with his fingertips.
Further, there are the exotic locations, Istanbul and other places in Turkey, Shanghai, Macau and… Scotland, which not for its exoticism but atmosphere. Cinematographer Deakins has crafted some very stylish scenes that distinguish Skyfall from just any other action flick… aesthetically appealing, moody and atmospheric, a mixed bag of nostalgic noir and contemporary, and in the last part, even a dash of gothic. If not for that iconic Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger parked outside the old stone mansion by the moor, you’d think it’s right out of Wuthering Heights.
Adele also joins the league. She co-wrote the Skyfall theme song and sings it in a way that echoes previous Bond numbers, most obviously, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’.
Skyfall has propelled the Bond film to a new era and up a notch. I’ve appreciated the internal character exploration but of course, there are still the spectacular explosions and car chases, the over-the-top mayhem and implausible escapes. We need those to ensure the audience that our hero is alive and well, after given a new lease on life. He’s still the same old Bond, James Bond.
~ ~ ~ Ripples