Bond, as I said, is a symbol of decadence. A post war indulgence. A standard on which Great Britain and its once Empire flew its flag high and long. It is little wonder then it was hit so hard by the Economic Crisis. Such bastions of almost licentious displays of money would naturally be hardest hit. As such, Bond lost his studio and all his funding. Something that, no doubt, put the franchise into crisis and certainly made its identity a questionable thing. In retrospect and with the beauty of hindsight, I think this was a good thing. It allowed the film time to fester and ferment in the minds of the filmmakers, and most importantly, in the minds of the public.
If my post a few weeks ago didn’t have my cards slammed harder on the table than La Chiffre at a Poker game then I will restate the obvious. I am a big fan of Bond and this one topped my favourites before it was 2/3rds of the way through. It also staked a very bold claim in my top ten, full stop. If you want the pithy, Bond-esque, brief review without spoilers: Go and fucking see it. If you want a more meditative, rambling look at theory and technique that will contain spoilers, please read on.
The reason Skyfall was so successful for me (and I stress the ‘For Me’ part as I know many people who took quite a violent dislike to this one) is because it is quite a departure from established Bond canon. Sure it ticks every box you want a Bond film to tick: Aston Martin, Walther PPK, Nice suits, Exotic locations, Humorous one liners, Action, Espionage, blah blah blah. If you want a Bond film, it is there. It takes one hell of a sterling leap from its predecessors in its final third however. But we’ll get to that…
The two stars of this film were Dench and Deakin. Dame Judi turns in a performance I’ve seldom seen and certainly not in a mainstream blockbuster. M is a stone hard, unreadable, gun-toting iron woman with an almost pathological protective streak for her country. This edifice, beautifully mirroring the facade of Bond’s much fought for ‘Queen and Country’ slowly crumbles away until they are both literally sitting in their own ruins of centuries ago. Dench’s performance is underplayed and un-showy but she steals the whole thing through being given such full screen time. It is really something to watch one of the acting world’s truly best being given something meaty and showy and completely owning the whole thing. They would never award oscars for this sort of thing (Thankfully) but Dench, in my mind, just turned in a career high and a performance well above an action movie of this nature.
Roger Deakin is the cinematographer. Skip this paragraph if you ain’t a photography/cinema nerd. Skyfall was shot digitally on an Arri ALEXA in ARRIRAW at 4K DCP and it is beeeeeeeeeautiful. Now I personally love both digital and film and think they both serve a purpose, traditionally however, filmmakers have come to use/rely on digital due to the fact it is immediately able to be rendered in the computer for editing and after effects and it is much more responsive to this type of post production. Digital can be better blended than film. Film is an organic, chemical compound and digitising it is a struggle and not always convincing. Skyfall is the first film I have seen use a digital format in a way a film cinematographer uses celluloid. There are two glaring moments of CGI (we’re still not there yet): a man takes a looooong fall and a couple of Komodo Dragons. But that is it and for a film of this grandeur, length and spectacle that is impressive. What Deakin gets right is to not over sell the format. He does not use a grain filter most importantly to try to fool us, he keeps everything, crisp, clear and most importantly, DRY. The contrast is never boosted, colours are not over saturated, the dreaded HDR never rears its head, chromakey is not overly relied upon. The establishing shots (particularly of Shanghai and Macau by night) were so eye wideningly joyous that I was in love with the film from then on. I saw this in IMAX and can only recommend the experience. One negative against film at IMAX, unless shot in the enormous and unwieldy IMAX format, is that it can be slightly too dark and fringing can occur. The digital transfer of this film however is the first time I’ve really felt digital cinematography to be of a similar (still different) standard to film. The artistic merit for both is different but this is the first argument I’ve seen for a more grand and luxuriant digital cinema. Yet counter intuitively it is because Deakin holds it all back. In short it is kept simple to the point of emaciation. And, THAT ladies and gentlemen, is the key is to the whole riddle of why I love this movie.
The script is lean. I have heard it criticised for its verbose nature where as I would disagree. Deakin builds up to money shots by restraining every other shot. The script does the same. Dialogue is constant, even in action scenes, rattling along and keeping pace but it is when it slows, again like the cinematography, – Bardem’s entrance, those establishing shots, descending into the icy lake, the lingering and loving shot of Turner’s Fighting Temeraire – that we are fed sumptuous and delicious morsels that feed us a carbohydrate binge for the upcoming adrenalin charge. My favourite scene comes at the end of the second act when the international web of espionage has tightened and Bond is running through London, the Sound FX dim, the score pulses, the shots widen and Dench delivers with, orchestral grandeur, Tennyson’s poem Ulysees, drawing the audience so close to the screen you could hear a pin drop. It is this economy yet depth of tone that coats the whole film.
Everything is simplified. Bond has two gadgets, his suits are Alexander McQueen-esque Tom Ford designed slips, only fastening at a single button most times, the coats are simple plain cut, Crockett&Jones shoes with no detail and triple eyelets, rifles not lasers or automatics, the overblown modern architecture of modern MI6 is even deliberately undermined reducing it to a tunnel then to a bureaucrat’s pokey office, the cars are un-fussy Range Rovers, Jaguars and only one concession to the old school gaudiness with the DB5 but even that comes with a humorous asterisk. Even the sense of art hoovering up its context that I often speak of is used economically. A Leveson-style inquiry is presented in a very small courtroom. No every sense of the high ceilings, private jets, casinos and five-star hotels is carefully closeted away in favour of a more rich, dense yet economic fare.
It has its negatives. The real clincher for most will be one or both of two things: The 3rd act or its sexism. The latter cannot be ignored and should be addressed.
First and foremost it does not pass the Bechedel test but there is sadly more to it than that. Severine is Skyfall’s Bond Girl and is announced as a prostitute with a horrific and abusive past. Whom Bond duly shags in the shower. I’ve really tried to keep the spoilers to a minimum thus far but don’t read on if you haven’t seen it. Severine is shot by the evil villain Silva to which Bond makes a dismissive quip. It is admittedly hard to let this one slide. Bond is a throwback, which is not an excuse, but a lot of effort is put in to Bond’s background and his true character and motives, something I think is expertly done. However, this does not in any way paint him the hero, quite the opposite in fact. He is pictured as a self-indulgent, cynical, self-loathing, women hating, brute by the end. This does not forgive him and it does not try to endear him to us but it does develop Bond more than any other film and at least makes him more relatable. His nearest applicable character is Indiana Jones who, lest we forget, is a paedophile and a thief. Those aren’t jokes about Short Round either, watch Raiders again and pay close attention to Marion and Indiana’s conversation in her bar… There are sexist moments in this film that are uncomfortable but the film does at least make a firm effort to point the blame at an old and out of touch Imperialistic agent. Some will not be able to get past this however and I do understand/sympathise.
The finale however, is merely a matter of taste. I personally cannot put in to words how much I utterly fucking loved the final third of this film. Comparisons to Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs are justified. The under siege nature of Bond’s retreat is poetic to the point elegiac, despite the quips. The pacing of it all is so wonderfully tuned it feels like a gently ramped treadmill. Unfortunately, I am biased in favour of this ending. It is shot in Glencoe, a place I love, and Deakin’s photography as soon as they get to Scotland is so utterly beautiful I want to hang it on my fucking wall. Colour is stripped back to an almost non-existent palate which then literally explodes into a single flame of colour that is so beautifully lit it looks like those Turners we were treated to earlier in the film. I honestly wanted to cry it made me so happy and excited. They are in my favourite place, amongst the hills, in a spooky old abandoned house, there’s booby traps, gunfights, chases, duels and all majestically shot. Sadly people do not consider this Bond, and they are right. I was fully behind this tonal shift in the same way as I loved Danny Boyle’s Sunshine all the more for its similarly off-kilter finale. Others will probably find the down and dirty, horror-movie climax of Skyfall a bit jarring. I utterly fucking LOVED it.
Another Con: I have no idea why they put a model for Topman in the role of Q. Terrible bit of casting for a well written role.
Thomas Newman’s score is underwhelming and seems barely present but for 3 moments when the Bond theme kicks in and when he sumptuously reprises the films main title theme.
Comparisons to Dark Knight Rises, Straw Dogs, the Mission Impossible franchise, have all been made but the film it most resembles for me is Jaws. Jaws is a classic and perfect example of the 3 act structure every great story adheres to. Act 1: Set up – Introduce your protagonist and their motives and a mystery to solve. Act 2: The Turn – The villain is revealed along with their motives putting the protagonist either in jeopardy or at odds with them. Act 3: The Stand – Our protagonist confronts the problem and villain and resolves the conflict. Interestingly this is a method for poetry. I know I write poetry so will read it wherever I find something I like but Jaws and Skyfall follow this convention sooooooo doggedly it is hard to ignore and hard not to root for. Hooper, Quint and Brody strike out to sea to face their villain in a mano-a-mano showdown while in Skyfall, Queen Victoria, Daddy Warbucks and the dude from Tomb Raider head into the hills in a Mano-a-mano showdown. I want to cheer the whole way through a last act THIS good.
I think I have made my case as well I can. For some it will not be what they want from a Bond Film but for me there are too many things about this film that seem tailor-made to appeal to me specifically for me to not like it: A subtle but powerhouse performance in the centre stage, images of Turner, that tonal shift, Artistic Cinematography, block colour and simply tailored clothes, Scotland, a ‘haunted’ house, an epic climax wreathed in flame, poetic allegory, actual poetry, Shanghai, an evocative string-led theme, real darkness in frame, confidence in pacing, soliloquising, the list goes on. All these things on their own would make me love a film but all in one? You had me at Shanghai, James. I could ramble on for paragraphs more and would love to discuss it with anyone who is interested at great length and I am DEFINITELY seeing at IMAX again but for now I’ll leave it at that.
James Bond will return but never like this. Eleven out of Ten.