Friday, November 2, 2012

'Skyfall' (2012) directed by Sam Mendes, 2nd November 2012

(spoilers throughout)

I find the concept of James Bond pretty loathsome.  They're tales of a witty extrajudicial executioner travelling around the world, seducing and murdering women and furthering an sinister agenda for his shady upper-class master. All the while he's hawking brands of beer, car or watches in a kind of consumerist fetish orgy.  None of this is my bag. So I wasn't anticipating Skyfall in the least.  But after pretty much everybody I know telling me that it was brilliant, I had to go and see it.  And they were right, 'Skyfall' is an absolutely outstanding film.  I feel a deep kinship to the film, it hates James Bond just as much as I do!

Before I explain this though, I have to spend a paragraph talking about the absolute genius and gobsmackingly amazing talent of cinematographer Roger Deakins.   Damn near every single shot in this film is stunning.  You could watch this film without any sound at all, maybe even without any characters present and it'd be a stunning piece of cinematography.  It's a Bond film, so we get to travel around the world and visit some of the most stunning scenery I've seen since watching 'Samsara' (2012).  There are moments in the Shanghai sequences where the characters are illuminated with LED signage, or through smooth, blue glass that took my breath away.  On the other end of the stylistic scale is the abandoned island that the bad guy has his lair on.  It's cold and earthy, lifeless like the surface of the moon with shattered statuary scattered around.  Roger Deakins deserves every single award they can throw at him for work like this.  Cinematography doesn't get much better.

Look at that gorgeous colour. 
The root of James Bond's popularity is that the audience can identify with him.  These films are funded in large part by product placement and prior to the film beginning I was treated to a myriad of adverts clearly aimed at capturing this Bondian spirit.  If we buy a certain brand of beer maybe some of the supposed style and elan Bond represents will rub off on us?  If we go so far as to wear the same brand of watch, or drive the same car, maybe people will subconsciously associate us with Bond himself.  This tactic must be successful, it's fuelled 50 years of Bond films and created a cultural icon in the process.  The essence of James Bond is freedom and the admiration of others, or, to use a cliche "women want him, men want to be him".  He's an idealised combination of masculinity, competence and good taste.  For James Bond films to continue to be produced, people must want to believe they can be James Bond. 

Obviously this is an illusion.  We're not James Bond and most of us know it, but it's a nice fantasy to imagine.  What 'Skyfall' does is show us why the James Bond model is not something to praise, it is something to pity and revile.  The film does this by allowing us a peek into an unfamiliar world, even compared to other Bond films.  This film differs from the rest of the series in some crucial ways.  The first is that the 'villain', Silva (Javier Bardem) is not some cackling supervillain out to wreak havoc upon the wider populace, he is specifically targeting those in the intelligence community.  The second is that the role of the Bond girl has been occupied by M (Judi Dench).  The third is that repeatedly in the text, we are shown exactly why the very idea of James Bond is outdated, even to the final scenes.  Some other films in the series have taken a few cheeky jabs at the idea (I seem to remember 'Goldeneye' (1995) referring to Bond as a dinosaur and a relic), but this film goes straight for the jugular in outlining his irrelevance.

This feels like a direct visual quote of 'Terminator' (1984).  Thus painting Bond as robot killer.
Daniel Craig is fascinating to watch in this film.  He's almost scarily inhuman as Bond, his eyes cool and sharklike.  Emotionally he plays the character blank, a cypher, with hints of a barely suppressed rage bubbling somewhere under the surface.  Even when he makes a joke there's something dark lurking behind it, as if he's making a one-liner because he feels obliged, rather than because he wants to.  The film visually and narrative treats Bond as a piece of equipment, something to be deployed into the field to carry out dirty jobs.  One of the themes of the film is the increasing irrelevance of having a person conducting espionage in person, characters repeatedly say things like "I can do more damage on my laptop in my pyjamas than you can do in a year in the field."   This treatment of Bond as a tool extends even to his own consideration of his body.  Throughout the film he struggles with an injury, treating and working on his body like he might think of a car with something wrong with the engine. 

Perhaps more than most films in the series, 'Skyfall' goes out of its way to show Bond as wealthy.  We visit his country estate, see his classic car and so on.  In one crucial scene he is given 400 million Euros, and soon after he's literally beating people up with the money which he then gives away like it's no big deal.  So we can't identify with Bond emotionally, because he doesn't really have recognisable human emotions, and we can't identify with him socially because he's so fantastically rich he occupies a completely different reality to his audience.  None of this is unintentional, Mendes goes to great lengths to separate the spy world from ours.

Bond meets his dark mirror and gets a taste of his own medicine.
Nearly every character in this film is directly linked to MI6 and we explore the consequences of the organisation's actions throughout the film.  This has the effect of creating a hermetically sealed, sterile world where the actions of the characters only impact within their community and on themselves.  It's reputation that's at stake rather than the safety and well being of the public.  The film seems to take pains to define its characters as 'the other': specifically the rich, the upper-class and the born to rule.  Decisions are made in oak-panelled offices over glasses of expensive whiskey, or deep underground in secret bunkers.  Whenever characters talk about democratically elected officials they smirk at their impotence and weakness.  If they're actually shown, then the film treats them with disdain. M, Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), Tanner (Rory Kinnear) and Bond seem to be able to do whatever they want and answer to no-one.  

So the battlefield of this film is that of the rich and powerful, people who seem to have no motivation for their actions other than a vague sense of duty and a need to fill their time.  What motivates them is a self-serving desire to keep their own dirty hides from being exposed.  The MacGuffin for a large part of the film is a hard drive containing the identities of undercover agents throughout the world.  If his information is exposed, it would mean the deaths of these individuals.  Why should we care about these people?  We're never introduced to them or given any information as to what they've been doing.  For all we know they're engaged in such noble actions as busily undermining democratically elected regimes to install puppet governments for the West.  The consequences for the filmic equivalent of 'us' in the world of 'Skyfall' seem minimal.

Ralph Fiennes as Mallory, the very personification of the British establishment
The laserlike focus this film puts on the internal drama of the intelligence community makes it important to pay attention how the film treats the general public (or the audience) when we're on screen.  And we're not treated well.  We're the guy running a market stall who gets a truck driven through it without a second thought.  We're the people violently shoved out of the way on a crowded tube platform with no regard to our safety.  We're the out of focus woman shot in the background of an action scene.  At one point an assassin shoots a security guard, and a few seconds later Bond steps over his corpse without even glancing down.  That poor dead guy is us.

See that guy in the background who's been knocked down?  That's you that is.  Bond doesn't give a shit.
There are numerous other examples of the way the 'good guys' in the film treat the common man.  For example, early in the film there's an attack on M16 headquarters on the Thames, and the organisation is forced to move.  They choose to set up shop underneath Smithfield Meat Market in Farringdon.  Now, the film has established that M16 are a target, and that people want to blow them up.  So, without a second thought they've turned the meat market's staff and customers above them into a human shield for them.  

But there is one working-class character in the film who isn't a part of the spy game, Kincaid (Albert Finney).  The climax of the film takes place in around the grounds of the Bond family estate, which is seemingly abandoned and ruined.  Kincaid is the Bond family's groundskeeper and servant, a man resigned to a life of servitude for an invisible upper-class that has fucked off elsewhere.  He's easily the most relatable character in the film, and the audience immediately warms to him.  It's a brilliant bit of casting that this perpetual indentured servant is played by Albert Finney.  Finney's iconic breakthrough role was as Arthur Seaton, the angry young working class protagonist of 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning' (1960).  Check out this famous bit of dialogue:

"I'm a dynamite dealer waiting to blow the factory to kingdom come. Whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not." - Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton
Kincaid in 'Skyfall' is Arthur Seaton in 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning' 52 years later.    He even supplies Bond with dynamite (why on earth is there a supply of dynamite on a country estate if not to make the filmic link?)  He's the archetypal working man, but all of the individuality, rage and pride has been systemically sucked out of him.  Kincaid is neutered, a tired old man living in the ruin of his murderous upper-class boss's house.  The working class don't get to 'blow the factory to kingdom come' anymore though. In real life and in the film, this is left to Bond, the powerful and landed gentry.  I wonder if Bond has a hedge fund?

And so to the Bond girls.  We're faked out twice in this film, we think we've met his main squeeze and then the tables are turned on us.  The two candidates presented to us are Eve (Naomie Harris) and Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe).  

Severine on her boat, recovering from Bond' raping her.  Look at him swaggering around back there.
Eve fits the mold of the 'Bond girl who's Bond's equal', something like Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) from 'Tomorrow Never Dies' (1997) or Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry) from 'Die Another Day' (2002).  But though she gives as good as she gets she drops out of the action for large portions of the film, and makes a conscious decision to stay out of the field.  She gets to know Bond, sees his studied inhumanity and takes it as a warning.

Sévérine is more of a classical Bond girl, the glamorous and dangerous ice queen who apparently melts under Bond's masculine charms.  Marlohe looks astonishingly attractive here and projects a regal confidence.  Unfortunately for her, she's in the wrong Bond film.  The film being what it is, she's quickly stripped both of her power, her status and finally her clothes.  We're introduced to her as undisputed Queen of the room she's in, but as soon as she's in contact with Bond he exposes her as a former prostitute, rapes* her and then she's unceremoniously killed.  Bond doesn't even seem to care that much about her death, never referencing her again once she's been shot.

It's M that's the Bond girl here, encompassing the role of both lover and mother to Bond.  Played by cuddly and highly respected British icon, M has been the one mainstay of 'modern era' ('Goldeneye' onwards) Bond.  Throughout the series she's been competent and respected by Bond with a slight hint of friendliness underneath.  Basically she's been shown as someone reliable, a good boss underneath it all.  'Skyfall' strips that away, exposing the ugly reality underneath.  Silva may have the secret base and facial deformity, but its M who's the real villain of this piece.

If only she had a white cat to stroke! 
In fact she's an absolute monster of a villain, taking recently orphaned children and setting herself up as a kind of surrogate mother to them with the intent of moulding them into weapons to send out into the world to kill.  I want to point out that this isn't my interpretation of her actions, these are explicitly what the film says she does.  She even specifically outlines that orphans are easier to mold into killers.  She sucks the humanity out of these people, leaving them hollow shells ready for her to fill with 'For England' style patriotic rubbish.  This is shown quite effectively by Silva literally having a hollow, burned out body.  

Her facile and dangerous brand of patriotism is amply shown by the tacky ceramic British bulldog on her desk.  It literalises the dangerous way that the UK, an imperial country bereft of an Empire likes to visualise itself - this cheap ornament is what's left of a military with no justification for its existence. What exactly is M16 even doing in this film?  She says herself that they don't even have an enemy to be fighting against, so she's ordering assassinations apparently to justify her vast, unaccountable intelligence network.  A tactic which quite rightly comes back to bite her in her evil, wrinkled arse.

Let's not mince words, this is a person who takes orphans, sends them out to kill people and tosses them away like rubbish when they've served their purpose.  She says towards the end of the film "I've really fucked up haven't I?".  Yes M.  Yes you have!

Run faster James Bond!  Here comes tomorrow!
Where does this leave James Bond?  A powerless character who can't fit into the modern world.  A used up tool who's not even that good at his job!  He screws up almost everything he attempts (just examples I can think of: the hard drive gets stolen, he fails his MI6 tests, he drops the assassin in Shanghai, Sévérine dies, Silva repeatedly escapes, M dies) and is comprehensively outsmarted, out manoeuvred by everyone else at nearly every turn.  The only way he comes out (vaguely) triumphant is to retreat into a past where the idea of James Bond actually worked.  He escapes into his own iconography, climbing into an Aston Martin DB5 in the desperate hope that his past glories will carry him through.  It's only by taking on the role of the classical landed gentry, the feudal lord of the manor and drawing the present backwards in time with him that he can possibly function effectively.  He can't stay holed up there forever though, and in the final scenes where he's standing confidently in the corridors of power again he smirks, trying to drag us all back to with him to an obsolete, dysfunctional time.  

The film ends with the now iconic credit "James Bond will return".  Don't take that as a message of triumph.  It's a threat.  

It's a wonderful film, one of my favourites of this year and certainly the best Bond film I've ever seen.  Go and see it, you'll never look at Bond the same way again!

*Now I can foresee getting some stick for saying that Bond rapes Sévérine.  But he breaks onto her 'boat', lies in wait until she is at her most vulnerable and then sneaks up on her in the shower and overpowers her.  She plays along, but what choice does she have?  Bond is monstrously muscled, she knows that he's killed before so as far as she knows if she fights back he'll kill her too.  We cannot know what Sévérine is thinking at that moment, and the fact that she's a prostitute indicates that she's probably a good actor when it comes to sex.  I think it's reasonable to conclude that this is a rape.  

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2 Responses to “'Skyfall' (2012) directed by Sam Mendes, 2nd November 2012”

Anonymous said...
November 5, 2012 at 5:01 PM

There's plenty of ceremony to the way Severine is shot!

Anonymous said...
November 10, 2012 at 8:47 AM

Well that was quite the textual blowjob to an average film full of holes and dross. And way to kick it off by insulting Samsara via the comparison. Let me know when your review of the DVD Jethro: a Giant Portion of Jethro, is up, I cant wait to read your next bit of off the mark critique.

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