Friday, November 23, 2012

Movie Review: Skyfall

For an Anglophile living in America, it is very easy to believe that we and Britain share basically the same culture.  We both speak the same language, we read many of the same books, we share a common legal system, and our countries have been allies for years.  But the effects of the American Revolution are even more profound than most of us realize.  In the 1770's, we Americans decided to break free of British history, to carve out our own story on our own land.  The folks who stayed in Britain, on the other hand, do not have that option.  No one ever has, or ever will, refer to Britain as the "New World."  Indeed, it is immensely old.  There are few lands on earth where so many of the same people have been living in the same place for so many centuries.  Because they are a daring, violent, and complicated people, the British have a daring, violent, and complicated history.  Because they are a sensitive and romantic people, they feel the weight of that history in a way that Americans find difficult to imagine.

But Sam Mendes, who directed the new James Bond movie Skyfall, does not find it difficult to imagine.  For the 50th anniversary of the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, Mendes has delivered us a story about Bond's history.  The movie begins with all the high-tech weaponry and excitement one normally expects from the Bond franchise, but after things start to go horribly wrong -- both for 007 and MI6 -- it becomes clear that the issues in play here cannot be resolved with a few quips and some gunplay.  This is not a story about the typical megalomaniac seeking to conquer the world.  The villain in this piece -- played masterfully by Javier Bardem -- is seeking revenge on MI6, and on its long-time leader "M" (played by the excellent Dame Judi Dench), for "sins" M allegedly committed in the past.

And so the usual futurism of the Bond movie is turned on its head -- Skyfall is about the past, not the future.  It is about the past of M, about the past of Bond, and above all, I think, about the glorious, violent, tragic, and complicated history of Britain -- which tried so hard to master the world, and which has done many things that seemed justified at the time, but which don't look so good in hindsight.

One of the running themes throughout the movie involves M's efforts to defend her record against younger critics who accuse her of past missteps and who insist that her ideals are no longer relevant.  Of course, one is always happy to see Judi Dench in anything, and she gives a performance of amazing force and talent here.  But in Mendes's handling, the decision to have an elderly female M -- which seemed almost comic in Casino Royale -- provides further echoes of that complex British history.  Great Britain has a long tradition -- going back at least to Elizabeth I, or even back to Boadicea -- of dashing cavaliers fighting under the command of women.  Mendes, who won an Academy Award for American Beauty, is clearly sensitive to the gender-based tensions inevitable in such a relationship.  (We notice, for example, how everyone refers to M as "Ma'am," and how the British pronunciation makes it sound like "Mom.")  Thankfully, he doesn't beat us over the head with this point, but he let's us see that Bond's closest emotional connection is to M, not to any of the other women in the cast.

M is not the only character dealing with questions about the past.  Mendes was born in 1965, and he uses the movie to wrestle with the onset of early middle age.  His main characters are both forty-somethings -- Daniel Craig (born 1968) plays a tired James Bond who wears a gray beard for much of the movie, while Bardem (born 1969) plays a villain whose dark past has taken over his life.  Time and again, Bond and M are forced to answer questions about whether their show is "played out," whether the old ways still have any purpose in a world where -- as the computer nerd who now serves as Q reminds us -- a hacker can cause more damage in his pajamas than 007 could do in a year.

You will not be surprised, of course, to know that the movie teaches us that the old and the middle-aged still have a lot to contribute.  James Bond was invented by Ian Fleming in the early 1950's, a time when many smart people suspected that Britain's best years were behind it, and Bond has always symbolized the notion that traditional British pluck and guile are just as essential as they were in the days of the Spanish Armada.  Furthermore, as the story goes on, we seem to move farther and farther into Britain's tortured past.  MI6 moves into tunnels built during World War II.  Bond goes on a chase through the ancient caverns under London.  And the final showdown takes place on an ancestral estate in Scotland, complete with creepy moors, a priest hole, and a medieval chapel.  Bond survives, of course, and we see the wisdom of the Old Ways.  But we also learn that the past -- especially one as long and tortured as Britain's -- will sometimes extract a heavy cost.

The more you know about Bond, of course, the more you will appreciate this movie.  But I really think this is the only James Bond movie that could be enjoyed as a character-driven drama.  There are some great action scenes in this movie, and some moments of incredible violence.  In the end, however, it is a rather tragic story of three unhappy and complex people, forced into battle because of decisions made in the past -- decisions that all seemed to make sense at the time.

So I am very happy this movie was made.  And I'm also happy that the prejudice against "genre films," which often kept the best actors and directors from working on such movies in my childhood, has largely gone away.  It was always a silly notion -- Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart made Westerns, while Humphrey Bogart made gangster movies, and no one ever thought they weren't great actors -- and it's great to see top-drawer talent in a Bond film.  Talent makes a difference, and it's difficult to overstate the benefits from having an Oscar-winning director and a top-notch cast.  I have already mentioned Dench, Bardem, and Craig (who has made Bond his own in a way that no one since Sean Connery has even approached), but I also really liked Ralph Fiennes (as a government insider), Naomie Harris (as a female agent who helps Bond), and Ben Wishaw (as the nerdy but arrogant Q).

Recommended for anyone who likes a good movie, and who isn't turned off by violence.

1 comment:

  1. this is the "one" movie I would choose to see this year. thanks for the background history update,especially as it relates to our english cousins, all of whom I secretly admire.