Bond just got better
The architects of the thrilling new addition to James Bond movies are the director-cinematographer duo of Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins. This is a Bond film that surpasses all expectations. Daniel Craig as Bond is as sharp and savvy as ever, but what really endures is the remarkably crafted extravaganza.
Mendes and Deakins have collaborated before in Jarhead (2005) and the intimate and compelling Revolutionary Road (2008). These films, and Deakins’ great work with the Coen brothers, are very different from Skyfall in scale and purpose. With Skyfall, Mendes makes the Bond movie much more than a sexy amalgam of stunts, dialogues and exotic locations. The visuals are poetic, and also schematic, as only a cinematographer like Deakins can achieve. There are some stunning, elaborate set pieces. I can’t take my mind away from a lengthy, suspenseful sequence shot on the top floor of a glass structure in Shanghai. The glasses are a psychedelic reflection of swirling neon lights, against which Bond has to shoot his target. It is remarkably executed.
Add to this kind of flair an unforgettable villain and the first-ever etched-out portrait of the gritty boss lady M (Judi Dench), and you have a supremely enjoyable Bond film. Skyfall is a fitting tribute to the 50th year of Bond.
Skyfall begins in Istanbul, with the trademark explosive, introductory chase sequence. On field, Bond’s colleague is Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), who follows Bond and his target, an accomplice of a terror network, in a jeep while the two men fight atop a dismembering moving train zipping through pitch dark tunnels. The sequence climaxes with the opening credit sequence revved up by Adele’s title song, already a pop culture anthem. In the British secret service headquarters, M has a prospective successor in Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). This is the only Bond film where M gets even an exposition. In all the earlier films she has a tough, staccato presence. Her pride in the job and her relationships with her embittered agents get prominence. Justifying her team of agents and their relevance against the nebulous, nameless enemy of 2012, M even recites Alfred Tennyson in front of a bench of cold investigators—passionately ending with, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
M’s, and therefore Bond’s, adversary is the chilling Silva (Javier Bardem), a villain armed with nanotechnology and the knowledge that everything in the new world—“the brave new world”, as Bond mumbles when he is given a new gun boosted by a multitasking chip by a New-Age forensic intern, Q (Ben Whishaw)—is wired and synaptic. Silva is blond, effete and melodramatic, intensely grud- ging of his past when he was part of the secret service establishment. Bond’s resentment of M is the non-pathological equivalent of Silva’s hatred for her.
Bond is older, wiser and a bit craven. He looks dishevelled. Each big stunt is an effort, his knees aren’t all right and his shots have lost the perfect aim. He is at sea in the gadget-worshipping world. In epic style, glorifying Bond’s tribe, Mendes and his writers, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, reiterate that technology still can’t win the big, moral wars because technology can be mastered by anyone, and definitely by the bad guys. In the larger scheme of things, Q is almost a dot, making the fights easier for Bond, but never conquerable.
Although it is never said, we know that Silva is like Bond. In his introductory scene, where Bond is in his captivity, Silva disembarks from an elevator and slowly walks towards the camera, his chilling profile slowly filling up the foreground. Silva is a masterful creation, a combination of pathos and psychosis, who tries to convince Bond that his loyalty to M is antithetical to manhood. Bond is clearly intrigued by Silva through the first half, until the battle attains the climactic moral scope.
Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), the Bond girl, is Silva’s toy, and Bond’s means to reach Silva. She is remarkably insignificant in the film, except for the brief romantic interlude with Bond in a casino in Macau. In the two-scene romance, Mendes extracts a classic shower moment, a film staple over ages, but lends it his own stamp.
The irresistible villain, M’s own struggles to stay relevant, Bond’s invincibility despite the demands of ageing—and all of it acted out brilliantly by the three actors—are enough reason to watch Skyfall. Craig retains his icy intensity, looking and acting every bit the wiser avatar. Whishaw and Harris have short roles, but are impressive. Bardem, however, is the show-stealer.
Skyfall is for the grown-up—the grown-up who understands and accepts impermanence, yet is trying to make sense of the world through technology, and has given in to technology’s tantalizing power. The snappy dialogues often don’t match this Bond; an aged single malt should have replaced the martini. Yet there could be nothing more than this as the perfect consummation of a timeless screen legend.
Skyfall released in theatres on Friday.