Saturday 27 October 2012

Review: Skyfall

Year: 2012
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay: John Logan Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney

Synopsis is here:

NOTE: I do not give explicit spoilers, but this review may not be great for anyone who wants to know anything about the film (although nearly everyone has seen it by now)

Skyfall is the film which celebrates 50 years of the character, appearing in features. Starting from Dr No in 1962 to the present day, Bond has drank, shagged and shot his way through five decades and remained something of an institution of British culture despite a barrage of ever-changing constituents. Add to this that cinema itself is not even 150 years old itself, Bond's longevity is something to behold. Bond’s near rampant alcoholism and misogyny apparently meaning nothing to his stout love for country. Maybe it's just the franchise's incredible ability to make things blow up extraordinarily, that keeps many chomping at the bit.

The most recent interpretation of Bond, has held some of the most radical alterations to the character since its sixties incarnation. Daniel Craig's Bond is a subject of grief, pain and retrospect. Even the rushed, muddled shenanigans of Quantum of Solace (maybe the only person in the world who doesn't mind it) reminds us that the brash, blunt instrument is someone motivated by murky emotions. James may be "doing it for England" but it's clear that he is heavily motivated by his relationships and those that he has lost around him.

Film critic for The Independent; Anthony Quinn, doesn't have much of an affinity for this more affected, softer Bond that's been on display, and it's understandable. There's a strong feeling that the Bond of the old guard is slowly evaporating. The character's mystique ebbing away; due outside wishes to be a little bit more like the Bourne franchise. The mythos is a sacred one, just look what happened when Mutt was introduced to the Indy mold.

Yet, here with Skyfall, I found myself invested with the ideas and themes that are at play. Here we have a more traditional spy caught in an era of transparency and internal conflict. Skyfall is smart enough to move with the times and ground an iconic hero with a certain amount of "plausibility" (we'll use this term very loosely). But it also caters to other aspects of the character that has made him so durable. It doesn't all work. The lack of camp humour has made the jokes and jibes dryer than a Chardonnay in the Sahara. Also, Skyfall still has difficulty with how it wishes to place certain females in the frame, trading off a well written a solid performance of Dame Judy Dench's M, for what can almost be considered as almost Bond girls. I have no real problem with Naomie Harris or Bérénice Marlohe in terms of their acting. However, they happen to be two of the more forgettable elements of the feature. At no point are we given the same sizzling interplay that makes Eva Green's Vesper Lynd so beguiling.

Nevertheless, Skyfall, for me, is the strongest of the Craig Bond features.  Swift with its pace and high on its octane levels, the film rarely drops a gear, nor loses focus. As an action film, the film hits all the beats with a satisfying crunch. Unlike the haphazard Quantum of Solace, Sam Mendes dictates the film with an actual rhythm for the audience to follow. He also gives us set pieces that just feel right for the occasion. Commandeering a Caterpillar and taking out VW Beetles? A dazzling, silhouetted fist fight in a Shanghi high rise? Kicking ass in-front of Komodo Dragons? Moments like these fit Bond to a tee.

As many have said, the film's real star may not be the intense, brooding Craig, but actually, cinematographer Roger Deakins. Mendes and Deakins work together, not only to make Britain itself an exotic place of its own accord (with Bond travelling all over the world, the U.K should feel strange to him) but also shape Britain as a visual metaphor for Bond himself. If the damaged MI6 building in London is where James' heart lies, it's no surprise that Skyfall, located in the Scottish Highlands is where his head is at. Deakins' creates a perfect storm of murky gloom. Such ambivalence is needed in the aesthetic to help continue a through line created since the Casino Royale reboot, that this a Bond conflicted internally by hurt. Some may not want such an understanding of 007, but the idea that the ability to inflict so much damage comes from a certain form of affliction (orphans make the best spies) is a decent way to keep the character fresh.

Deakins works his magic in wondrous ways, producing one of the most memorable introductions to a Bond villain that I can remember. For all the Brit-centric elements of the film, the first appearance of Raoul Silva on his creepily deserted island makes a grand impression. As the rouge net nerd, Silva, he struts between rows of modems and servers.  We notice that his savvy for modern tech is the perfect contrast towards Bond's staunch, last Bastille of traditionalist Britain. Bardem hits the ground running, allowing his flamboyant performance to tie up with the scene. He is the antithesis of Bond. His ambiguous sexual advance towards Bond at one point only helps suggest that this new world of villainy doesn't adhere to the same straight edged rules, we've known from before.

Themes like these are what Skyfall is about at its heart. I'm fascinated with how certain roles of traditionalism play off in a world that is shedding many of those features. A good chunk of the film belongs to Dench as M, who herself is trying to figure out what place she as well as Bond has in a changing regime. A pivotal and tense court room set piece sums up her feelings eloquently.

Skyfall comes out of the box strong, delivering high impact thrills and now a fully updated Bond that many can get their teeth into. Grumblings about Connery being the best will never go, and those complaining about a Spanish agent spying in Hong Kong for the Brits during the handover, may possibly be looking a tad too deeply into things. For me, Skyfall was the type of solid summer popcorn film, which ironically, due to tradition, missed its season.