Friday, 2 November 2012

The Friday Tramp Review: Skyfall

Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, screenplay by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Agent 007 on film, Bond 23 arrives like a thunderclap, with an effortless confidence, style and charm that has been absent from the series for years. Yes, Skyfall utterly erases the disappointment of 2008's Quantum of Solace, not only challenging Casino Royale for Daniel Craig's best outing to date as the eponymous spy, but also as one of the best instalments in the entire series. There is no question that along with Casino Royale, Skyfall is the best Bond film since the days of Connery, and in certain respects it is the most complex, emotionally satisfying and thrilling of the lot.

Where the emotional core in Casino Royale came from the relationship between Bond and Vesper, Skyfall not simply expands on the relationship between 007 and M: it uses their fraught alliance as the central plot mechanic. Indeed, Judi Dench's has always brought depth and ambiguity to the character: Goldeneye saw her bollock Bond for his recklessness and assure him that she was quite prepared to send him to his death, before warmly telling him to come back alive. In the otherwise risible Die Another Day (sharing more similarities than you might expect with Skyfall - more on that in a moment), Dench leaves Bond to rot in a North Korean prison until it's strategically sensible to reacquire him. In contrast, Quantum of Solace sees one character mistakes M for Bond's mother, with Bond quipping that 'she'd like to think' that she is. In Skyfall, she, well you'll have to see for yourself, but suffice to say M's responsibility for Bond hangs heavily over the entire film. After seven films Dench is second only to the original M, Bernard Lee, as the longest-serving actor in the role, giving a series-best performance here, and being given almost as much screen time as Craig himself. Several critics have already described her as the true Bond girl of the series, and it's not hard to see why. More to the point, Dench assures her position as by far the best of the three actors to have officially played Bond's boss. 

Judging the situation dispassionately: Judi Dench in a tough moment.
So what of those similarities with Die Another Day, roundly viewed as one of the lowest points for the franchise? As Skyfall is released on the fifty-year anniversary, so Brosnan's swansong, released ten years ago, fell on Bond's fortieth birthday. But where DAD, like a squawking teenager, insisted on reminding the audience it was the newest and bestest Bond film yet, featuring invisible cars and very visible CGI, and cramming scenes with embarrassing and obvious references to 007's better adventures, Skyfall looks back at the series with affection, wit and charm. There are probably more nods and homages in Skyfall than in DAD, but they never feel hackneyed or shoehorned in. Skyfall is aware of its heritage without being in thrall to it, reintroducing familiar tropes that were largely absent in Casino and Quantum, but doing so without feeling regressive. Moreover, the nods to other entries (I counted allusions to Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Live and Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun and Licence to Kill, and I suspect that there are more), rather than providing shallow, fan-boy pleasing distraction, actually help to augment the themes of the film: those of legacy, relevance and mortality. And it's here that Skyfall provides a wonderful counterpoint to the convention-breaking Casino Royale: where that film openly distanced itself from the other films, rebooting the franchise and jettisoning almost all the conventions and clichés of Bond, Skyfall rehabilitates the best parts of the classic series without jeopardising the good work done by Casino Royale. There is a conscious stylistic move away from the Bourne-esque trappings of Craig's previous films, which is entirely welcome. After all, how long could the grittiness have continued without becoming a cliché itself? Bourne managed three instalments before Legacy became a victim of its own formula, and so Mendes skirts that pitfall by changing things up with a sense of fun hitherto absent from Casino and Quantum. Much of Mendes' stylistic success comes from the stellar work by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has collaborating both with Mendes and the Coen brothers numerous times. Deakins provides some of the best cinematography this side of The Dark Knight; shooting on digital he makes the scenes in Shanghai pulse with light and colour, with neon lights swirling behind silhouetted figures. Shadows hide killers who, stepping into the light, reveal cold, ice blue eyes, and in London, the reds and blues of the union flag, draped over half a dozen coffins in a row, have never been more vibrant.

Sometimes the old toys are the best.

Come to think of it, with Deakins, Mendes and John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade on scriptwriting duty, that's something else that Skyfall gives us: the sense of a large, incredibly skilled team in front of and behind the camera, working towards a singular end. Director Mendes has spoken of the influence The Dark Knight had on Skyfall, but to refer to another superhero mega-hit, this is the first entry into the series where it feels is as if, Avengers-like, Bond is playing as one part of a highly skilled and professional unit. Without question, we have the best supporting cast in a Bond flick yet, with the aforementioned Dench playing alongside a terrific Naomie Harris as field agent Eve, and Ralph Fiennes portraying meddling committee chairman Mallory with relish. Not to mention Ben Whishaw, who does a wonderful job as the new Q, brilliantly reimagined as a spotty twenty-something. And let's not forget the magnificent, malevolent and very naughty Javier Bardem as the villain, Silva. With his weird, Christopher Walken-esque blond locks and powerful, effeminate voice, Bardem creates a character with all of the idiosyncrasies of a classic Bond foe, while somehow making him consistent the film's heightened realism. Mads Mikkelsen impressed in Casino Royale as Le Chiffre, but in years to come Silva will be ranked amongst Auric Goldfinger and Blofeld as one of the most iconic adversaries Bond has faced. The supporting cast, along with the surprisingly simple plot, all work like clockwork, with none of the main characters ever feeling extraneous or unneeded, while at the same time giving them just enough development to feel like real people, rather than narrative cogs driving Bond's story. In that respect, Skyfall's lavish visuals are countered by an incredibly lean, focussed narrative that is all the more refreshing following the twisty-turny-selling-water-at-over-the-odds nonsense of Quantum of Solace.

When Casino Royale was released in 2006, a friend commented to me that it felt like the first Bond film to really feel like a good film in its own right. What Skyfall achieves may be greater even than that: to give us not only a terrific movie in its own right, in contention with The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises for this year's best blockbuster, but also, arguably the definitive Bond film. Those are big words, but Skyfall takes the best elements of the series while ditching its worst excesses. Moreover, instead of merely electing to thrill us (and, boy oh boy, thrill us it does), Skyfall actually has something meaningful to say about its characters and the rapidly-changing world they inhabit, tying those concerns into a surprisingly nuanced, honest and emotive reflection on the series itself as it turns fifty. Skyfall shows us not just that an old dog can learn new tricks, but that the old tricks still have the capacity to delight. Finally, on his third go around, Craig has finally, inarguably, wonderfully, grown fully into the role of 007. He gives us the confidence and comic timing of Sean, the one liners (minus the cheese) of Roger, the damaged menace of Timothy, and even a little of the schoolboy swagger of Pierce. But Craig does more than merely imitate his predecessors; his performance is studied, yes, but Craig has brought his own qualities to the fore, and gives one of his best performances in any film to date. I've often said that the only actor to truly embody, rather than merely play, Bond, was Connery, but from now on there will always be two Agents 007. Daniel Craig is James Bond, and I can't wait for him to return.

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