Friday, 26 October 2012

Movies: Skyfall review

Skyfall review James Bond 007 Daniel Craig

Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non-Functional.

Dir: Sam Mendes
Stars: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw
Running Time: 143 mins

This review will be spoiler-free, making it one of the hardest I've ever had to write. Not only because I'm a Bond nerd of unhealthy magnitude, no doubt demonstrated by the Countdown To 007 feature running on this blog for the past nine days, but because many of Skyfall's biggest joys come from its celebration and repositioning of a fifty year cinematic legacy. That's not to suggest there isn't plenty for non-devotees to enjoy as well: these days, Bond follows the trend of the times, and the movie's central set-piece offers a very British take on The Dark Knight's formula for sprawling urban epics, before moving to the remote highlands for a climactic showdown which blends the 'Englishman's home is his castle' ethos of Straw Dogs with a strong nods to Ian Fleming's Spy Who Loved Me novel.

Those calling Skyfall a 'classic' Bond are wide of the mark, however. It is unlike any other entry in the series, driven by theme rather than plot and with a distinct identity to its visuals, soundtrack and direction. The Bond series' deliberate visual uniformity has given it a reputation as a no man's land for technical artists, but Skyfall is very much the amalgamated product of Sam Mendes' character-driven theatrical background, Roger Deakins' stunning use of colour and composition, and Thomas Newman's subtly evocative score. For the first time since the early Connery era, the people behind the camera represent top tier talent operating at the height of their powers, and it shows in every gorgeous frame.
The movie strikes a perfect balance between its modern subject matter and a romantic devotion to an idealised past. The plot, as revealed in the trailer, kicks off with a hard drive going missing containing the identity of Nato agents undercover in terrorist cells across the globe, before branching out into fears about invisible enemies and the perils of national security being entrusted to technology when there are people on both sides capable of manipulating it to their own ends. The symbolism can be a little heavy-handed, but the topic is potent for a series which has often thrived following accusations of being outdated. Such concerns may be embedded in the here and now, but Bond remains one of the old guard and the movie is a paean to the idea (and importance) of people like him standing up for old-fashioned ideals and ready to engage with threats on a physical level.

After turning psycho in Quantum Of Solace, Bond's inherent decency is established in the movie's first few minutes, characterised as someone who won't flinch in making difficult decisions while performing his duty but places value in every life saved or lost. Given the beautifully framed shot of M standing behind a row of coffins draped in Union Jack flags, the movie could be read as a tribute to the real heroes in our Armed forces, risking their lives in far away lands so everyone at home can sleep more safely. In this light, Craig's rough and tumble Bond is very much a soldier in spirit, albeit in civilian clothes and fighting his battles against individuals rather than armies. It's a powerful and honourable take on the character, finally giving an identifying purpose to Craig's interpretation, which until now has seemed trapped between the original character and modern expectations, even in his strong Casino work. The snobbery and sexism are mostly gone, but Bond is first and foremost a champion for his country, and Skyfall proudly restores him to that role while adding the self-doubting inner monologue which was a vital humanising ingredient of Fleming's character. A poetic interjection at the mid-point sums up the movie's ethos in a way that movingly evokes the meld of high culture with blockbuster action which remains one of the series' defining characteristics.

Javier Bardem's villain Silva is another rooted in Fleming tradition - a larger than life grotesque - while finding a new direction for one of the series' stock figures. The shocking blonde hair is an obvious nod to Julian Assange, as is, perhaps, the unsavoury nature of the character's sexuality. (Bond's riposte to some heavy flirtation is one of Skyfall's biggest, riskiest laughs). It's no surprise Bardem was attracted to the role, because Silva could have been lifted straight out of Pedro Almodovar, bubbling over with mother issues and concealing internal instability behind a florid manner. True, the character's history is delivered in a single monologue and we have to take his previous talents on trust, but Bardem, always at his finest in a hideous wig, suggests horrifying depths and sadness in his non-verbal cues, rendering the concrete facts of his sinister speeches compelling, but effectively redundant.

Turning a villain into a mirror for Bond is a familiar device, but has rarely been used so effectively and aimed so specifically. M has long been more expository figure than actual character, even with the role expanded in recent outings, but Judi Dench is this time at the heart of the conflict, an ageing symbol for an institution under fire for covertly risking lives in a time where transparency and sensitivity are the order of the day. Skyfall is satisfyingly concerned with consequences as much as action, and never have Bond's orders and his relationship with the people who deliver them been subject to such scrutiny. It is as much a character study as an action movie, proven by the relative dearth of huge set-pieces outside the impressively manic pre-credits sequence and intense finale. 

While not huge in number, each grows out of the drama organically with considerable individuality in their scope and staging. The choreography is captured with a flawless sense of geography, mercifully making Dan Bradley's motion-sickness inducing Quantum Of Solace camerawork a one-off aberration. That level of artistry is enhanced by Roger Deakins' cinematography, which turns Shanghai into a Blade Runner-esque sci-fi cityscape illuminated by flashing neon billboards, Macau a searing cesspit of reds and oranges, and relishes the stoic Victorian beauty of London's subterranean foundations. If Deakins gives the movie its visual flair, Thomas Newman makes it sing with the series' most daring soundtrack to date, mixing familiar Bond cues - perfectly deployed at key moments - with more unusual asymmetric rises and longueurs. Adele's theme song is restricted to the gorgeous if slightly muddled credits sequence, but is note-perfect as a contemporary spin on Shirley Bassey's immortal contributions.

A handful of small frustrations hold the movie back from the genre-defining greatness of series highlights like From Russia With Love or Goldfinger. While the many nods to the series' legacy are entirely welcome and executed with joyous glee - not to give anything away, but the Aston Martin twice steals the show - the components of the plot can feel a little overfamiliar. Yes, after twenty-three movies, some recycling is forgiveable, but it takes a solid hour before the movie starts producing anything which could be considered remotely new. Silva's scheme is also built on very wobbly logic, particularly the always troublesome that idea he'd been setting up his master plan years ahead of time, requiring Tiresian levels of foresight. A few revelations at the end feel hamfisted in a similar way to The Dark Knight Rises' wrap-up, and though having the gunbarrel sequence as a closer is far more giddily enjoyable than its misplacement in Quantum, still takes away the unparalleled frisson of having it announce the start of a brand new Bond. Considering how the movie ends, surely there's now no possible excuse for not putting back in its rightful place for Craig's fourth outing.

Even more than Casino Royale, the movie feels like it is putting the pieces in place to return the Bond universe to a more traditional set-up, right down to the return of a very familiar looking set. Hopefully that will not mean abandoning the revisionist streak which makes Skyfall both unique in the canon and very much a part of it, but the series has always had a keen sense of what to evolve and what to safeguard, and there's no reason to fear that may not be the case going forward. If not quite top of the pile, this remains one of the most energised and artistically rich entries in Bond's long history, played out by a wonderful cast - Naomie Harris is charm personified and has a sweetly affable manner in her interplay with Craig, while Bérénice Marlohe, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney all vividly define their characters in a very short space of time - and an inspired choice of director in Sam Mendes, who gently signs the film without ever threatening to overpower it. If any Bond is to have a legitimate claim at Academy recognition, this is the one. After fifty years, Skyfall proves Bond is still on top of his game. [ 8 ]


Silent Hunter said...

Good review - although I'd personally give it a 9.

There was an attempt to get the gunbarrel at the start, but the shots didn't match and it does work better at the end - mostly.

Also, it sadly appears that Michael G Wilson's customary cameo ended up on the cutting room floor.

Xander Markham said...

Yeah, I was relieved to hear Mendes at least intended to put the gunbarrel at the beginning. I thought the opening shot was a bit silly to be honest, but what the heck. Once again, fingers crossed for next time.

I also read that about the Michael G Wilson cameo, apparently he was a pallbearer at the military funeral. I seem to remember him saying he could be glimpsed for less than a second if you look insanely carefully. Glad a fellow Bond nerd approves of the review!

Silent Hunter said...

I approve of your blog in general. :)

Paul Tully said...

I always enjoy reading your reviews - written with such eloquence and elegance, huge enthusiasm and rich contextual references. I awaited Skyfall in eager anticipation, already convinced on Daniel Craig's portrayal in Casino Royale the second time of watching - changing my impression of Bond as 'psychotic thug' to Bond as 'honourable patriot' with a few rough edges (and effectively rendering Brosnan's lighter character as almost effiminate by contrast). I won't spoil the ending of Skyfall, but for me it was a film of two distinctive storylines - the first a classic Bondian escapade into enemy lines, the second a sentimental impertinence. Unfortunately, this was a disappointing entry - a film entirely based on one villain's revenge of an earlier 'betrayal', with absolutely no explanation of the psychological trauma inflicted, even though it is delivered with aplomb, if not slightly caricatured. Quite frankly, I prayed that Judi Dench would retire gracefully, but instead, we have our villain conducting a city-wide one-person ravaging of London in his search for his 'spy mother', eventually catching up in Scotland, where he plans to assault our hero's only memory of a troubled childhood - the problem is, none of the dialogue makes any effort to unveil or explore some of the darker implications of what our our two protagonists have experienced, and I am left feeling that the director's attempt to humanise his main characters is completely misplaced, and somewhat naive in its execution, leaving the audience unmoved. If M really was a spy, why is her chaperone wielding a torch for everyone to see? The ending itself - whilst spectacularly photographed - is instantly forgettable, again missing a unique opportunity for villain and 'spy mother' to reconcile their earlier differences. What transpires between these two characters in these final moments is supposed to be the nexus of the entire story, and could have reached enormous emotional potential, but is rushed and cauterised. If the aim is to move Bond closer to unlocking the psychological forces that prevail upon his disposition and conscience, we must have some vehicle (other characters, better writing) through which this can be developed. Not enough of the Bond-M relationship is exposed during the film to justify his end-state, though I'm sure others will disagree with me. Altogether - great photography, serious limitations in storytelling, questionable characterisation. Let's have the next one!

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.