MGM, the studio behind the franchise, found their piggy bank empty and put the next Bond film on ‘indefinite hiatus’, threatening to put the kibosh on Daniel Craig’s universally acclaimed stab at a character Sean Connery once proclaimed was as difficult for an actor as Hamlet. Happily, someone discovered a truck full of money stuffed down the back of the sofa and now we have Skyfall to inject our long-neglected veins with the usual narcotic mix of action, glamour, sex and unresolved issues of parental abandonment. Wait, what?
Bar marrying Diana Rigg a few decades ago Bond hasn’t really gone in for any of what you might call ‘character development’. He was already fully formed when Sean Connery sat down at the casino table fifty years ago, lit a cigarette and introduced himself with a look of supreme confidence. A ruthless womaniser, a killer and a supposedly secret agent who is nevertheless on first name terms with every doorman in the world, James Bond leaves each film unchanged. He seems to learn nothing except a couple of highly original ways to kill people, and two or three new phone numbers for his little black book. Then came Casino Royale, and we were shown a newly promoted Bond who promptly had his heart well and truly broken by a beautiful woman. Before our eyes Bond started having emotions other than lust and the sort of cold anger that was the last thing so many would-be supervillains ever saw. Blimey. Quantum Of Solace continued this, showing Bond nursing his emotional wounds until finally putting it all behind him. Now, in Skyfall, it’s his emotional involvement with another woman that drives the movie: Judi Dench’s M.
Casting Dench as Bond’s boss in Goldeneye almost twenty years ago was a stroke of genius, one that has paid untold dividends for the franchise. In some ways a surrogate mother for Bond, M’s trust in him and his respect for her has become the most important relationship in his life. Other women have come and gone (Skyfall’s Bond girls Naomie Harris and Berenice Marlohe barely get a look in), but M remains. After a chase through Istanbul in a pre-credits sequence that escalates and accelerates again and again in the best traditions of Bond openings, 007 is last seen plummeting, shot, into a river, the incalculably valuable hard drive of agent identities he was pursuing stolen. After spending three months playing scary drinking games with scorpions and nursing somewhat bruised feelings of abused loyalty, Bond eventually returns from the list of the presumed dead to a frosty scolding from M. MI6 has been attacked in its own headquarters, and Bond has returned because he knows he is needed: by England and, perhaps more importantly, by M herself. Orphaned early, Bond’s pantheon of authority figures consists solely of a woman twice his age and half his size who treats him like a cross between a prodigal son and a naughty puppy.
After a stop in Shanghai and the ruined island lair of the bad guy chasing the stolen list of identities, Bond spends the rest of the film in Britain, as M fights off political pressure (in the initial form of Ralph Fiennes as an ambiguous Whitehall mandarin) for her to be put out to dignified but entirely unwanted pasture after agents named on the missing hard-drive are unmasked on YouTube. The whole thing takes on a very personal feeling for M, as the motive for the theft and the driving force of the plot seems to lie in the sins of her past. A chase through the tube at rush hour leads to a thrilling gunfight in the hallowed halls of government and, eventually, to somewhere that answers the question many people have been asking since they found out what the new Bond film was called: what the bloody hell does the title mean?
Playing Bond as slightly more dishevelled and off his game than we’re used to, Craig has now relaxed utterly into the role, finding emotional depths other actors in the role haven’t plumbed and enjoying himself thoroughly in what must be the giddy fun of being the guy who gets to play James Bond. In profile he looks like the lovechild of Mickey Rourke’s Marvin from Sin City and Robert Shaw’s ferocious Bond heavy Red Grant, all buzzcut and craggy features offset by piercingly cold, blue eyes. You could barely imagine Roger Moore’s Bond breaking into a run, but even when he’s standing still, dressed in an immaculate tuxedo, Craig looks like he’s ready to give chase and shoot some damn fool in the head at any moment.
After a disappointingly unthreatening villain in Quantum of Solace it’s a joy to find Bond has been put against a worthy adversary. Javier Bardem’s playful, unpredictable Silva is possibly the best Bond villain since Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga. He enters the film in a long, uninterrupted shot, approaching us like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia, but with dyed blonde hair and an impish smile. And no camel. He’s a twisted mirror image of Bond in many ways, able to see the loyalty to M that forms a bedrock of certainty in Bond and introduce fault lines. “Mommy was very bad”, he says at one point. There’s even a frisson of sexual tension between Bond and Silva when they meet, something with which the two actors plainly had a lot of fun.
Nods to Bond movies of yesteryear are scattered throughout the film - it is the fiftieth anniversary of, after all - including the return of Q, in the form of a bespectacled and very bookish looking Ben Wishaw. The gadgets he delivers are kept to a minimum, amounting to little more than a fancy new Walther PPK and a radio; “Not exactly Christmas, is it?” complains Bond, but it’s nice to see Q back. The biggest laugh of the night involved the welcome reappearance of Q’s most famous gadget, but the script is sprinkled with wit throughout.
The whole thing looks beautiful, and Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins (his director of photography) have made what is almost certainly the best looking Bond film so far. Money has never been a problem for Bond movies, but beyond the spectacle of glossy action they always offered they’ve rarely been a visual feast like this. A glowing russet fire in the misty Scottish highlands that backlights the running silhouette of Bond, a Chinese high-rise seemingly composed entirely of neon and glass, a row of coffins draped with the Union Jack foreshortening ultimately to a mourning and black-clad M: it’s a gorgeous looking movie.
After a reboot that has scaled back the gadgets and silliness that threatened to suffocate the movies under the weight of their formula, Craig’s tenure as Bond has seen the character rebuilt from the ground up. Skyfall ends with him quite close to what might be considered the classic status quo of James Bond. The final scene will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever relaxed on the sofa after Christmas dinner to watch Roger Moore or Sean Connery swagger past Moneypenny on his way to a waspish briefing from Bernard Lee’s disapproving M. It feels like welcoming back an old friend.
Skyfall is showing at Broadway until Thursday 8 November
Skyfall official website