I found Skyfall to be rather similar to Alfred Hitchcock's films in terms of its construction. Hitch made great thrillers but at the same time they also dealt with interesting and often perverse themes. Skyfall functions on a number of levels, on the surface it's a fantastic action-thriller, the movie is exciting and moves at such a great energetic pace. However, at the same time it has plenty of subtext and is thematically loaded. If you want to watch a great fun-film Skyfall is for you but if you want an interesting macabre character-driven affair you're also come to the right place.
The film's pre-title sequence is damn thrilling and really hits the ground running. I think it may be the series's best in fact. There is so much going on and it's expertly put together by Mendes. Mendes sets up three parallel story-threads through the sequence featuring Bond, Eve and M back in London. The stakes are really ramped up in the finale of the sequence when all three threads converge excellently. The real stroke of genius was killing off 007. Typically these opening sequences end triumphantly with Bond dusting off his shoulders, getting the girl and going off on a high-note into the main-titles. Despite the clear set-up that this will be the way things go it is not the case here. Every time I see Bond get shot I get chills, it's such a clever and subversive moment. Not only did Bond fail to get back the list but he got killed in the process. It's made more poignant by seeing M look out the window clearly wounded by the loss of her golden boy. Shortly after we travel through what seems to be Bond's subconscious in a haunting main-title sequence fittingly kitted out with burning effigies of 007.
The Daniel Craig films have always been focussed on his evolution into James Bond and the how the betrayal of Vesper shaped his character. It seemingly was this thread that we all thought was the most important thing about his stories and his quest to get revenge on Quantum and chase the threat behind the threat. How wrong we were. The truth was always staring us in the face - these films have always been about the mentor/student (mother/son) relationship between Bond and M. This relationship rightly takes centre-stage this time out. It's a lucky coincidence that Judi Dench's character is called 'M' as the mother connotations have always been there and Bond calling M "ma'am" doesn't go unnoticed.
M is the matriarchal mother figure not only in 007's life but also as it seems to Silva. The oedipal connotations are really ratcheted up here. It's arguable whether there is some underline erotism in this relationship, however I do think Bond and Silva love her passionately. M is a cold distant mother figure and Bond and Silva are her sons both eager to please. In reward for their fierce loyalty M offers them little in exchange and as it would seem she would happily trade on their lives if it means getting the job done. From the root of this idea the film's central villain takes shape - Silva is essentially a deranged mummy's boy driven a great sense of betrayal. Another idea that seems fitting for a Hitchcock movie.
The film in many ways is very much an ode on ageing and death. Here we see M looking all her 77 years and being told that she has lost her edge and her methods are outdated. Death seems to permanent throughout the film, whether it be the talk surrounding Ronson's demise, the Mi6 agents funerals or Bond and M's respective deaths, it seems that SF is a film concerned with mortality.
M is the face of old-espionage, she believes in old-fashioned values like trust, loyalty and honour. Meanwhile, Mallory is the face of the modern-spying world, he is an analytical bureaucrat who doesn't trust M's instincts. In SF the threats are not just external but also internal as M seems to be getting caught up in red-tape in this regard SF takes on shades of The Ipcress File. M is constantly reminded she is accountable for her actions something that hits home during the enquiry. I love how M is defiant to his calls for her entering early retirement, leaving her post in dignity doesn't matter to her she'll go when the job's done. However it is worth asking whether M really is past it? Throughout the film M seems fragile and beneath her poker-face the events look like they are taking there toll. Plus she is clearly loosing her grasp on Mi6 with the organisation left in tatters and humiliated throughout the film.
This all leads to the re-introduction of Bond. I loved seeing this physically and psychologically-weary 007, Bond truly seems broken throughout the first half of the movie. When we first meet Bond he is bleary-eyed and off his game. Immediately the audience are sympathetic to him and rooting for him to get his mojo back. This development in his character contributes to the main thematic concern of the move - the 'old' vs the 'new' and which one is Bond? Is he the 'old' and therefore should he be resigned to the past and considered a vestige of yesteryear or can 007 reinvent himself and survive in a new world? The real question here is: Do we really need James Bond?
The question the film gives is obviously a resounding 'yes' but it's not without a grand struggle towards getting to that answer. Bond throughout the film is being reminded how much of a dinosaur he really is, not just physically (he's a wreck in all his Mi6 assessments) but also in his ideology. His 'pathetic love of country' and his believe in Mi6 is quant and old-fashioned. From this perspective SF works as a justification as to why we should question but ultimately have faith in our intelligence agencies.
Furthermore, Mallory says in no uneven terms - spying is a young man's game. Even the new Q is ridiculing him, the scene shared between the pair is fantastic and is something of a mini-classic (and by far the best written scene in the film). As Bond stares at 'The Fighting Temeraire' with the setting sun behind it's clear that 007's days may be numbered. His brand of spying is antiquated and old-fashioned in a world of Wikileaks and drones why do we need to still rely on the 'man-with-the-gun' out in the field? This is where the film finds it's footing as it's all about Bond finding out where he fits into this 'brave new world'. It all comes to a head perfectly in the London Underground segment where it becomes clear why Bond is still needed. As Q feeds Bond the information he needs (a perfect marriage between the old and the new), he violently pursues his enemy before running determinedly down the streets of Whitehall to M quoting Tennyson. It's a beautiful, operatic and poetic moment that really cements the point that while Mi6 and Bond may not have been the force they once were you shouldn't write them off too easily yet. The battle between the old and the new also endorses old-fashioned values such as loyalty, courage and heroism, when he's needed Bond rises to the occasion dragging himself together and rebuilding himself from the previous broken 007 we saw on screen.
This element also gives the film something of a meta quality. The enquiry provide an embittered argument rendering Mi6 unnecessary. Therefore forcing us to us to ask; 'what is the point of secret agents like James Bond'? And therefore in turn 'what is the point of Bond movies'? As Bond runs down the street and M provides her powerful justification it's clear that Bond is still needed simply to remind us how exciting, pleasurable and satisfying an action-thriller can be especially when as intelligent as SF. In this respect Skyfall is a very self-conscious Bond film. It wants to be subversive and de-constructive to not only the main character but also some of the series long-held troupes. But it's not shying away from it's past and often seems to celebrate 007's heyday while at the same time it isn't afraid to contemplate the franchise's future. Skyfall is the first time I've ever really seen a Bond film where I cannot wait to see what happens next, the series has so much potential now and the franchise really feels reinvigorated.
What is clear from the film was that characterisation was key to Mendes. Previous Bond films the stakes have been large, often with threats made by numerous villains hellbent on world domination. Sometimes the stakes haven't been high enough (are we really supposed to care who gets a utilities contract in South America?), but here the stakes are very much personal. This is displayed in the film's action sequences - we start in large bustling city like Istanbul and later move to an equally busy London before the thing moves to an isolated house in the middle of a Scottish moor with the three key players facing off against each other.
It's a clever move as the relationships between the three lead figures is very interesting. It's clear the presence of Sam Mendes on set has provoked all the actors in the film to really give it their all this time out. Daniel Craig by far gives his best performance as 007 in this film. Craig really sells the physical side of his character - when he's up on a train fighting Patrice he looks mad and every punch he lands on him looks intent on seriously harming the villain. Furthermore, his performance throughout is packed full with subtly and nuance. He plays the broken weary side of the character so well and he really looks past his sell-by-date at times but it's a stirring and confident performance. I love the opening when we see a tired looking Bond who's clearly bored and reckless. Craig plays the character mostly in complete silence but still reveals an inner-life to James Bond. It's the little things he does that make a heavy impact, for instance the scene where he confronts M at her home is fantastic or the way he is trying to hold it together during Tanner's briefing before he collapses. It's very nuanced and a complete masterclass in understatement as Mendes's camera captures all those tiny twitches and grimaces in his eyes and mouth. Another example comes during the word-association game (what a great idea for a Bond film), Bond is playful with the answers often taking a second to reply, however when asked; 'Country?' Bond's response is reflex-like; "England". Mendes really does put Bond on the couch in this movie more so than any other director before and I personally love this as Craig really rises to the occasion, he's the perfect 007 he's vulnerable and tough. He is also damn cool, the way he looks and moves in his suit, his deep voice and just the little things like how he throws away his father's shotgun and kicks up the other gun. It's obvious from the box-office receipts that the world agrees that Daniel Craig made Bond cool again.
It's a similar story with Judi Dench, she is such an amazing actress and I'm always reminded of this when i see her. M is icy and cold but she makes the woman seem sympathetic, it's just the small things like a glazed look in her eye or a slight twitch at her mouth it all makes her character so compelling. For instance take the moment where she is confronted with Silva in the cell it's clear that she feels some sort of guilt towards her treatment of him but you can almost see the mask in front of her face that she won't let slip in the situation. Her death is scene is also powerful and played beautifully. Dench and Craig's performances are similar in the vein that it's clear with the pair that 'less-is-more' and Roger Deakins's camera can be relied on to capture everything. This all means Javier Bardem can get away with being a little louder and flamboyant but he still plays Silva as a harrowing victim and it's easy to see things from his perspective. Bardem is fantastic in creating a great feeling of unease and creepiness with Silva.
The relationship between the three is fantastic. Bond and M both seem to have a deep love for each other and when Bond dies she really seems to feel his loss however instead of expressing this on his return she barks "where the hell have you been?" It's a great moment as the pair can never quite express how they actually feel for each other. Bond came back to protect not only Mi6 from attack but also protect his mentor. It takes Mallory to call the pair out but M stands by her agent no matter what. In contrast Silva had a very similar relationship with M, it seems M likes to treat her agents mean and keep them keen. She has these boys really on a leash and they'll come beckoning whenever she whistles (quite literally in Bond's case with the earpiece in the film's opening, she's very much in charge throughout the pre-titles). The interesting thing of course is that she betrays both and leaves them for dead. While Bond can come to appreciate her decision behind doing this it's a much more bitter pill for Silva to swallow. In this regard Silva is very much a doppelgänger to Bond representing the man Bond could have become had he let himself. Bond and Silva are essentially mummy's boys, one protecting whilst the other tries to kill their surrogate mother with both having gone through similar experiences.
The film though is not without it's faults, the first is that the plot is slightly threadbare and considering the film is nearly two and half hours long it does become quite evident at times. It often seems that the film relies on a number of tableau-like sequences to play out often without much relation to the next segment. However, this is equally a strength as many of the scenes are excellent (eg; the William Tell scene, Bond and Severine's drink and Silva's six-minute introduction scene being highlights) the film is often at its most audacious and fun in these moments.
However, there are also a number of strange moments that don't work in the film for instance - the komodo dragons seem like a scene out of another Bond movie as does the "circle of life" jab and Bond's reaction to Severine's death (is her demise really just a 'waste of good scotch'?) and his capture of Silva is also contrived. I'm also not a fan of the moment that follows it; upon hearing of Silva's motivation to kill M, Bond seems rather passive; shouldn't his faith in M be shaken at that point? Silva's escape is also slightly groan-worthy. This though is all nitpicking.
However, my one big concern was in fact the large narrative jump between the enquiry sequence and Bond going to Skyfall. It seems like quite a big jump, I understand that the phyc-test referencing Skyfall and it was in Bond's thoughts and Silva mentioned his childhood trauma but it would have been nice to have another reference somewhere that Skyfall was on Bond's mind. I guess we got it in the main titles sequence if you view the segment as Bond's life-flashing-before-his-eyes. Also it does tie back to the themes of death and mortality discussed above with Bond wanted to rediscover his childhood home having been through such an ordeal when he was shot on the train and possibly thinking about his parent's death after his near experience. It is also a great touch that he took M to his house as he's essentially giving her a glimpse of his private life with strengthens the bond they share. Part of me though does think that the move to introduce Skyfall may have come from Mendes's desire to open up his 'James Bond film' and distinguish his entry as a more personal affair for the secret agent (after all no other Bond director has dealt with 007's past so heavily). However this is no bad thing at all and in the most part the third-act is very good and features some of the most beautiful action put on film also I love the moment with Bond re-exploring his house again.
Also did M have to die? Possibly not, but it felt like the character's life-cycle had come to an end what with Mallory's upcoming appointment but I do think the film could have justified M's existence in the new Mi6 or possibly had her retire; though that would have lacked bite and it was fitting that SF was Judi's swansong. It makes sense that her character meet her end and the film has been establishing since it's opening reel that M seemed to be on borrowed time. Plus M makes a number of dubious life-or-death decisions throughout the film so it seems fitting that she dies and in a way gets her comeuppance as a result. Plus had M survived the stakes would have evaporated immediately and made SF seem episodic and a another 'James Bond adventure' opposed to an event which actually has an important impact moving forward. It also plays up to the themes of ageing, loss and death. The film is about the new guard coming in after the old and it makes sense that in a 'new world' Bond would have a new M, and rather excitingly there seems to be a lot of places Bond and Mallory can go. On a last note with M; her final line seems to be her acknowledging her acceptance, love and appreciation for 007.
The production values of the movie are also through the roof. Thomas Newman's score has come in for a hard time and I actually enjoyed it immensely it's suitably tense and exciting and really very well done. However, the biggest pat-on-the-back goes to Roger Deakins for the films visuals and lighting. Action movies aren't supposed to look this beautiful and the actual framing of many of the shots are stunning and elegantly composed (all of the Skyfall finale, the shots of Bond collapsing and taking off his shirt in the 'new Mi6', even the first dialogue scene with Mallory and M is beautifully composed). The writing is also great and the script and dialogue is classy, witty and very well put together. The tone of the movie is also perfectly modulated, it's fun and exciting but also serious. The movie is also very exotic and glamorous with the Macau segment really providing sex-appeal. The Shanghai and Underground chase are also fantastic cat-and-mouse segments, with the London chase being a particular highlight; even if it isn't the biggest in terms of action it's the most exciting as the stakes are personal and it's integrated into the narrative seamlessly. The performances are also top-draw, Naomie Harris has great chemistry with Craig and sizzles in her role, Ralph Fiennes is perfectly ambiguous and hints for great things to come, Ben Whishaw is on scene-stealing form and Berenice Marlohe really shines in a small role. Albert Finney also provides a great warm avuncular presence to proceedings.
In all SF is a great Bond movie, probably the best. It's expertly put together and a real testament to the team behind it. The real hero here is Sam Mendes who has crafted an auter-driven Bond movie in what are usually personality-less affairs directorially. Mendes has confidently made a thrilling action movie and taken to it like a duck-to-water, not only has he crafted an intelligent thriller but a rich and complex film about ageing and death. I literally can't wait for the follow-up.