I think by now I really ought to be able to post some reflections on Skyfall, on the basis that if you have not yet seen it and wish to do so without spoilers, you don’t have to read any further.
The film opens with a chase scene that goes from on foot to car to motorbike to train. Against the backdrop of Istanbul, it is visually stunning and over-stimulating; but it does so much more than set the adrenalin going. It introduces three motifs that will recur throughout the film: desperate problem-solving, falling from height/into depth, and characters wrestling with the order to sacrifice a colleague for the greater good; the first a metaphor for identity crisis, the second a metaphor for death and resurrection, the third a narrative device that combines the other two.
This sequence is followed by the title song. Sung by Adele, it re-boots iconic Bond by combining the comfortingly familiar – evoking the great themes sung by Shirley Bassey – with the disconcertingly unfamiliar: this is M’s love song, expressing her complicated but completely non-sexual love for Bond.
Throughout the film, other iconic Bond elements are re-booted in similar fashion: a young, geek-chic Quartermaster (Q); a black Moneypenny who demonstrates herself to be an able field operative but chooses for herself to serve from a desk; a new M, with familiar hat-stand and leather-padded door (we move from distrusting his motives to trusting his intentions).
In one of the few truly hostile reviews, Giles Coren slams the film for its portrayal of women, and its implied portrayal of contemporary Britain. In his self-righteous journalist’s anger, he fails to recognise that M chooses to die (chooses not to withhold from herself the cost she has asked of others), and Moneypenny chooses a desk (feminism is growing up, becoming more diverse). But most of his anger is directed at Bond – a character who is supposed to represent all that is heroic about Britain – cynically having sex with a woman whom he knew had been trafficked into prostitution and then forced to be a gangsters trophy, simply because he was ‘bored,’ and then choosing not to intervene to save her when she is murdered by said gangster. It is true that both these scenes are disturbing: but for precisely that reason, I am glad that they are there. Bond, too, is getting a re-boot: he is depicted neither as hero (as Coren wrongly assumes and rightly rejects) nor villain (as Coren wrongly deems him to actually be) but as anti-hero. Here is a deeply damaged man, with his own psychological baggage; whose actions are deeply conflicted; who has a moral compass, but perhaps not my moral compass or Giles Coren’s moral compass; who is caught in an identity-crisis, but who, in a morally complex and often ambiguous world, holds on to the possibility of redemption and resurrection.
In this, Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond is both a very accurate reflection of British identity in 2012 and a very hopeful depiction. Some commentators have rightly seen in the film a crisis of confidence in Britain’s role in the world; but there is also the promise that there is still a role for us, one that is not what it was but is in continuity with who we are, a resurrected life, a re-booting that combines the familiar with the new. It is a fitting way to mark 50 years of Bond on the screen.
Skyfall is a visually beautiful film (the use of blue light and glass in the scene in a Shanghai skyscraper is cinematic painting at its best), and a great action movie, and I don’t think there is one bad performance among the cast. But it goes to work at a far deeper level than escapism or mindless entertainment. Skyfall poses challenging questions about our own brokenness – at both the personal level and as a society; about our role in the world – at both the personal level and as a society; about our need for one another and commitment to one another – and the risk inherent in that need and that commitment...I don’t come out of the cinema seduced into wanting to be James Bond (though I wouldn’t mind sharing his tailor, or taking better care of his Aston Martin BD5), but knowing that he and I are already part of the same British Everyman: and that before I pass judgement on him, I need to allow him to interrogate me – and maybe even teach me a thing or two about how to face the unfinished future...