11 Nov 2012

Skyfall dir. Sam Mendes (2012)

Film is a manipulative art form. Much of its effectiveness is derived from its ability to make us feel. We are carried along with the sweep of a well-executed dolly shot, or tricked by a jump-cut; we are caught up by the story’s pace as determined in the editing room; our emotional response is keyed to and prompted by the score. The rudiments of film construction are all centred upon affecting the audience. Though that may read like a cynical view of the medium, it is in fact to cinema’s great credit that it has evolved such a direct connection to viewers.

For me there are perhaps no films more manipulative than those in the James Bond franchise. Like many filmgoers of my age (and older) I grew up with James Bond. License to Kill (1989) was the first entry in the series I saw in a cinema, when I was 8 years of age. It may well have been before that that I had started to accumulate other Bond films, recorded off Christmas television for endless replaying on our top-loading Betamax machine.

One of the great draws of these films is the famous components that one expects to find in each instalment. There is something comforting in the inevitable introduction: “Bond, James Bond”, in the familiar strains of that theme song, and in knowing our hero’s drink order. When so many elements of the piece are predefined, from the surrealistic music video title sequence to the promise during the credits that ‘James Bond will return’, it might seem that the screenwriter and director have a relatively easy job on their hands. String together a few action scenes set in exotic locales, add a dose of sex, a fist fight, and a car chase or two and send the thing out wrapped in a bow-tie. Looked at another way however, all of those expected elements are also constraints, waypoint markers from which the filmmakers must not stray too far.

This is the balance with which the two Bond films preceding Skyfall struggled. Casino Royale (2006), by taking Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel as its template, was rooted in the history of the character, but also sought to reboot the franchise with a grittier tone more akin to that established by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass in the first two Jason Bourne films for Universal. Whilst many of the familiar tropes were in place the film, and its sequel Quantum of Solace (2008), lacked the wit that had characterised many of the series’ previous entries. It felt as though the films’ creators were trying to wrestle all of the franchise’s peccadilloes into a new form, which left the results feeling straight-jacketed and unfulfilling. The post-Bourne, post-War on Terror straight-facedness of this new Bond did well at the box office and won over more than a few critics, but did so at the expense of some of the more human traits of the character and the series as a whole.

This is clearly a problem with which screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, and director Sam Mendes engaged in shaping Skyfall. From the script level up the film is proudly indebted to its ancestry, and manages to go about the work of updating it in a more sure-footed manner than its two immediate predecessors. Instead of wholesale adoption of other series’ stylistic choices the film takes the time to actively engage with Bond’s past and to assess what place the character has in the modern world, and by extension modern cinema. So, whilst the film reintroduces the role of Q (sorely missing in the two Craig outings thus far), it makes explicit with a couple of lines of dialogue that there will be no ‘exploding pens’ of the type wielded by Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye (1995). The iconic Aston Martin DB5 is reprised as Bond’s car of choice, and the advent of a new Miss Moneypenny is welcome, as is her reinvention as a capable former field agent.

It should be noted that Skyfall is hands-down the most strikingly beautiful Bond movie to date. Mendes’s style is impressively assured: his confidence in the material signalled by the use of a signature musical sting accompanying the film’s very first image, and his confidence in Bond as an icon extending to a willingness to let key scenes play out entirely in silhouette. The film also marks yet another impressive entry in the exemplary career of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Many of the locations (especially Shanghai and Macau) and the shots that establish them are nothing short of breathtaking. But the real strength of Skyfall is the surety with which it navigates the balance of nostalgia and modernisation. Now entering its sixth decade as a film franchise it is remarkable that Sam Mendes has crafted a movie that balances the past and future of Bond so perfectly. The script, in the wording of Bond’s (premature) obituary, openly recognises the character’s role as “emblematic of British fortitude”, and the sense of Bond as symbol is strong throughout. He’s compared by Q to an old warship, and equated by the film’s villain with an antiquated way of doing things. At each turn the film is examining how and whether Bond fits.

The film’s villain is also a device through which Bond’s own place is examined. A former agent and a previous protégé of M’s, Silva is a mirror image of Bond. Like Conrad’s (& Coppolla’s) Kurtz he is a brilliant operative gone rogue - at once a reminder and an indictment of the rules within which Bond exists. Previous villains in the series are roughly divisible into two categories: those who attack Bond through influence of their minds (Blofeld, Goldfinger et al) and those who pose a physical threat (Jaws, Red Grant etc.). Silva is different in that he is principally a threat to Bond’s heart & soul. A similar trick is being played here as is performed in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), in which The Joker’s aim is squarely on undermining Batman’s values before anything else. Here, as in Nolan’s film, it serves to reveal truths about Bond’s character. Whilst he fails every test of physical fitness and mental acuity required to return to active service, M gives her approval of 007’s return to the field based on what she knows of his spirit - the second and third acts of the film are trials to Bond through which M’s judgement is proven correct. Bond is literally sent back to his roots, to the abandoned family home from which his trauma stems, and proves himself - within a stone’s throw of his parents’ gravestones - to be everything he attests to be. Mendes echoes the film’s opening, in which Bond falls to his supposed death amid a surging river, by sending James back underwater to fight for his life - his self-proclaimed hobby of ‘resurrection’ put to the test.

And with Skyfall Mendes has brought new purpose to a franchise which had felt somewhat directionless in recent years. Unquestionably a new Bond, but one that feels firmly grounded in an understanding of and and acceptance of the character’s place in cinema history. Bond’s inclusion in the 2012 London Olympics’ opening ceremony is a sign of his iconic status not just in British culture but universally. The lines from Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ that feature prominently at the culmination of the film’s second act, seem to speak directly to the question of Britain’s place in the modern world, and also to the matter of James Bond’s place in modern cinema.

We are not now that strength which in the 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.

There is also that line, repeated by several characters throughout the film and easily read as a direct acknowledgement that not every change has been for the better: “Sometimes the old ways are the best”. Not reinvention then, but resurrection.