‘If all else fails, sometimes the old ways are the best’ declares Albert Finney’s character at one point during Skyfall. For those of us who felt let down by Quantum of Solace (which is surely most of us) after the refreshing renewal of Casino Royale, that is a very welcome statement indeed. The script isn’t taking an intentional swipe at previous installments, but embracing what makes this franchise so distinctive – thus allowing Skyfall to be the most enjoyably self-aware Bond movie ever made. ‘That which we are; we are;’ says Judi Dench’s M, quoting Tennyson, neatly and poetically summing up Sam Mendes’ approach to his latest offering.
Action movies aren’t what they once were, thanks to Messrs. Batman and Bourne, with audiences expecting not only more stylistic sophistication but more emotional heft. Mendes is an actor’s director and hasn’t changed his ways just because he’s dealing with Bond, quite the opposite. The script has been put together so tightly that each ‘Bond’ moment feels correctly placed rather than clumsily shoe-horned clichés as has previously been the case. Whether it’s the Aston Martin, the obligatory Martini or the pit full of Komodo dragons, each feels welcome and legitimate, not contrived. The story is simple, deliberately so, but with a healthy list of suitably exotic locations. We start in Istanbul, where a failed mission has left Bond presumed dead and a list of secret operatives in the hands of the bad guy – in this case the sinisterly camp Silva (played with great charm by Javier Bardem). We then go to Shanghai, Macau and Silva’s secret island (of course), all the while flitting back to London where M16 are having troubles of their own. Bond returns to blighty himself, firstly to check in with his employers but then also to Scotland for a (weirdly Harry Potter-esque) showdown with Mr. Silva. Only in the second half do we get to truly enjoy our surroundings, as even at 143 minutes this film doesn’t dwell anywhere, even when we might want it to.
Mendes is clearly a fan and has conjured a consummate example of how to tackle this challenge – the fact that it’s Bond’s 50th centenary probably counts for less. There is a lot more of original author Ian Fleming in this film, which is commendable, but that’s where the potential problems lie. Obviously continuity is something that got thrown out the window long ago so shouldn’t be an issue – but Mendes has chosen to reveal a lot more character than we’re used to seeing. Bond is enigmatic, impenetrable, a loyal servant to queen, country and the apt one-liner. Skyfall reveals more, showing us a Bond with weaknesses and human qualities and stubble. We even find out about his parents. This certainly adds more emotional investment, but potentially at the expense of permanently altering our image of James, the pristine hero. In this sense the film is pulling us in two different directions, a disconcerting thought but also a tactic that largely works. Mendes is tugging us through, marching bravely forward without forgetting where we’ve been. As a director he’s made the crucial realisation that Bond is a like a listed-building: there are certain features you just can’t touch. He’s done a very delicate and respectful refurbishment job here, to his credit – as well as screen writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, bringing us up to date without ditching the traditions. The supporting cast are all excellent (including the underused Naomi Harris and new Q Ben Whishaw), the music is great as always (including the opening credits) and Daniel Craig is brilliantly laconic as the man himself. At the close we’re promised that James Bond Will Return – but the question is whether another film, without it’s own Quantum of Solace to follow on from, can fulfil and then exceed the requirements as thoroughly as Skyfall has.