'Skyfall' Returns to 'Bond' Roots

New movie is a gift to Brits who still love Queen and country.

Quantum of Solace, the 22nd film in the venerable James Bond series, was arguably the most innovative of them all. Rejecting the ethos that defined Bond’s universe from Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, published in 1953, to its cinematic incarnation in 2006, Quantum of Solace presented a bleak, manichean view of geopolitics wherein a greedy West, with willing assistance from a shadowy organization called Quantum, plundered an innocent and helpless third world. There were bows to Marxism, broadsides against capitalism, and shots across the bridge of the CIA.

Suffice it to say Quantum of Solace wore its cynical politics on its sleeve. A red sleeve.

But the ideology of the politics was less innovative than their mere introduction.

Bond films had always been notable for their apolitical tone. Born in 1962, the very apogee of the Cold War, Bond films nevertheless largely steered clear of political shoals. Yes, James Bond, the "Queen's loyal terrier," was basically patriotic and the Soviet Union was sometimes obliquely depicted as inimical, but by the standards of the age, politics were conspicuously muted.

That all changed with Quantum of Solace. And it changed in a postcolonial, postmodern manner that would not have pleased founding producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, let alone Ian Fleming, the man who authored it all.

Longstanding Bond observers surely wondered, had current producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, under the influence of Paul Haggis and Marc Forster, permanently turned James Bond against queen and country? (Historian Juan Cole gleefully suggested something to that effect.)

But Skyfall, the follow-up to Quantum of Solace, answers the query with a thunderous no.

Skyfall’s plot, for the film’s first half, is murky and nebulous. We learn that villains of some sort have acquired a list of Western agents embedded in terrorist organizations around the globe. We see those agents exposed, to mortal effect, on Youtube. And we witness a bomb blast at MI6 headquarters. But as they used to say in old England, what was it all in aid of?

The shroud is lifted after agent 007 and his MI6 cohort capture arch-foe Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) and extradite him to the UK. Under interrogation, Silva relates his past as an MI6 agent in Hong Kong where, under orders from intelligence chief M (Judi Dench), he was hung out to dry, captured by the Chinese and tortured forte et dure. Silva attempted suicide by crushing a cyanide capsule lodged in a tooth, but the poison, rather than kill its consumer, merely scarred and disfigured him, physically and mentally.

Silva then, unhinged by the experience, has himself become a cyberterrorist bent on murdering M and destroying the organization she controls. From this point on, Skyfall offers a chiseled, linear and straightforward quest for revenge by Silva, coupled to James Bond’s exhaustive and frenzied efforts to thwart and destroy the malign shade of missions past.

Director Sam Mendes realizes the tale at a very high level. While Skyfall drags slightly in the middle, the tension and suspense mount exponentially and resolve in a slam-bang ending that is equal parts action and tragedy. The post-climax coda is a bittersweet and valedictory brew tinctured with optimistic revivification. It all packs a whipsawing wallop of conflicting emotions calculated to leave the audience with a certain sense of pride and good cheer.

Skyfall is a beautifully crafted film. Its cinematography, in contrast to that of Quantum of Solace, leans to the beautiful and the picturesque. Aerial shots of Shanghai at night are breathtaking and contrast powerfully with the stark Scottish landscape where the final pitched battle occurs.

The editing is old school. Contra Quantum of Solace, scenes unfold in a leisurely manner and cameras linger. Even the action sequences, jolting as they are, nevertheless do not disorient through rapid-fire, chaotic edits, as they did in Skyfall’s predecessor.

Acting in Skyfall is top-class. Daniel Craig, already the last word in Bondian toughness, manages to ratchet up his hard-bitten masculinity yet another notch.

Bardem’s Silva will go down in Bond lore as the creepiest villain in series history to date. Silva is an entirely different personality from No County for Old Men’s legendary Anton Chiguhr, but inspires a similar unease and dread.

The criminally underutilized Berenice Marlohe, in the role of distressed dame Severine, delivers a quirkily spellbinding performance. Her giddily terrified interchange with Bond in a Macao casino may be the highlight of the film.

Dame Judi Dench, in her final—and most extensive—turn as M, departs on a note that will draw attention from Oscar voters. She is careworn and fragile, yet also pugnacious and determined. It is an appealing and highly sympathetic performance that sets the audience up for heartbreak rarely realized so powerfully in action and adventure films.

But Skyfall’s unmistakable rejection of the astigmatic pathos and the pernicious self-loathing found in Quantum of Solace is what defines this film.

Skyfall is unabashedly patriotic. Bond, confronted by a mocking Silva, cockily tosses his love of country in the villain’s face. Union Jacks fly. The English bulldog, the four-legged twin of Winston Churchill and talismanic symbol of British tenacity, features prominently. Hence, a ceramic bulldog improbably survives the explosion in M’s MI6 office. M wills the bulldog to Bond. When Bond unwrapped M’s symbolic bequest, the audience in my west Texas theatre erupted in cheers and applause. One can only imagine the response in England itself.

Skyfall venerates tradition and it honors the aged. Bond is twice labeled old-fashioned and on both occasions accepts the jibe as a badge of pride. Judi Dench, the septuagenarian warhorse, is every bit as heroic as Bond himself. What’s more, she pairs with an equally elderly Kincade (Albert Finney) at Bond’s childhood home (named Skyfall), as silver tigers pitched against Silva and his battalion of young cyber-savages. The homage to a generation rapidly disappearing is as touching as it is unthinkable had Quantum of Solace been the template for future Bond films.

Skyfall is an archaizing, historically literate Bond film. The Reformation is mentioned in the context of Bond’s childhood estate of Skyfall. Winston Churchill is referenced when MI6, hoping to avoid another attack from Silva, relocates to the ancient subterranean passages of London. M quotes verses from Tennyson. Adele’s portentous title track could have been written for Shirley Bassey or Nancy Sinatra. Bond pulls his 1964 Aston Martin out of mothballs to spirit M away to Skyfall. He shaves—and is shaved—with a straight razor. The new Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) states that sometimes the old ways are better. Bond’s most technologically sophisticated gadget is a radio transmitter. A monocle and a trilby would not have gone amiss.

This film, much like Fleming’s novels published in austere, post-war Great Britain, is powerful medicine for British spirits at low ebb. Skyfall suggests that Great Britain’s past should not be scorned and reviled. On the contrary, there is much in the nation’s history and traditional culture that should be admired and even revived. For a people steeped in the rituals of masochistic flagellation, Skyfall is a corrective absolution. It is a gift to the people of the United Kingdom.

The 23rd instantiation of cinematic James Bond leaves the series with a new roster of dramatis personae. In addition to the above-mentioned Harris in the role of Moneypenny, Ralph Fiennes moves into Dench’s seat as M, and Ben Whishaw revives the role of Q made famous by Desmond Llewellyn. James Bond is thus recharged, rearmed and poised to extend his astonishing half-century run. It’s not out of the question that he could outlive the nation that gave him birth. Then again, the new, old James Bond offers hints for how to revive and prolong Britannia. It is up to the Brits to listen.

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