What’s not to like about this film that celebrates 50 years of the world’s most famous secret agent? Why, even the Vatican has given its imprimatur to the 23rd Bond with a rave review in its widely read house-journal. And let’s not forget Queen Elizabeth who made an appearance with Bond, James Bond at the Olympics.
Now, with Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, we have a film that is, arguably, the best in the longest running franchise of all time. Let me point out at the outset: Skyfall contains all the classic ingredients which have made the franchise a legend – the title credits song (sung this around by Shirley Bassey’s worthy successor, Adele) nail biting action, exotic locations, scary villains, sleek cars, guns, gadgets, gorgeous girls, yachts, casinos and Bond’s favourite tipple, the martini “shaken not stirred”.
Every writer has trouble writing but not Ian Fleming who only wrote what he knew over 12 novels and 9 short stories without ever having studied creative writing. In other words, Bond, James Bond, is much like his creator who chronicles the adventures of 007 with panache. Screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan draw on Julian Assange and Wikileaks for plot and characterisation in the shape of cyber terrorist Raoul (Bardem) Silva who attacks MI6. The situation is complicated by hostile politicians who no longer believe in the intelligence apparatus and contenders from within the agency like Gareth Mallory (Fiennes), the new Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee who challenges M’s (Dench) authority.
The movie opens with a Bourne-like chase as Bond (Craig) dashes through the streets of Istanbul and on top of a speeding train in a long, exciting pre-credits sequence. You may recall the film-makers had planned to shoot these scenes in India last August, but bureaucratic hurdles led to the scrapping of those plans. Key locales for our globetrotting secret agent include London, Shanghai, Macau’s Cotai Strip dominated by the fabled Venetian and Scotland, all stunningly lensed by Roger Deakin.
The title alludes to Bond’s childhood home in the Scottish highlands, a large, rugged homestead named “Skyfall Lodge,” that is the setting for act three of the narrative. (Pierce Brosnan’s first film in the series, Golden Eye was named after Fleming’s home in Jamaica) More importantly, the script introduces wonderful back stories for the principal characters; notably, M, Silva, Miss Moneypenny (Harris) and Bond himself whose dead mother is named Monique Delacroix (Fleming’s mother was surnamed St Croix).
Indeed, Bond’s backstory is the most heart-rending of all, but I’m not telling. Except to say that it explains the Vatican’s new found love for the man with a licence to kill in self-defence. And that, given England’s traditional antipathy to the Scots, Irish and French (did you know Catholics are still barred from ascending the British throne?) the film deserves a rousing hosanna for holding up a Scots Catholic as the patriot par excellence who will lay down his life for Queen and Country.
The film-makers also make other pivotal changes: Miss Moneypenny is no English rose, but a beautiful black ex-operative. Q is a boyish art-loving techie (Whi-shaw) instead of the venerable, gadget-loving spymaster (usually played by thespian Desmond Llewelyn)
Their first meeting is in an art gallery and Bond disregards the bespectacled youth intently examining masterworks, which Bond dismisses as “bloody paintings”. The encounter between Bond and ashen-haired cyber terrorist Silva is even more memorable. Bardem gives an unusual twist to his character, which will place him alongside Auric Goldfinger and Ernst Blofeld.
Craig essays a very vulnerable hero. Suave and debonair in the briefest of sequences, he is, for much of the narrative, wounded, psychologically and physically. And he is at his most vulnerable when he floats to the bottom of the Bosporus in the prelude, in a sight that tugs at your heart-strings, just as it does when he is cradling M on the moorland at the end, just like he would his own mother. “I got something right” M murmurs. Mendes gets it more than right. Skyfall soars skyhigh.