Friday, 26 October 2012

Skyfall, dir. Sam Mendes, wr. John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, st. Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Judi Dench

Another Bond film and expectations are perhaps at their loftiest. It's the 50th Anniversary of the film franchise and, still amped from a glorious Summer of patriotism, there is an expectation that now more than ever, the British film industry must deliver. The news that Sam Mendes was to helm Bond's 23rd outing was met with quiet confidence who yearn for the spy films of yore. Hardly an experienced action-film director, Bond fans however also know that even as an institution grows and evolves, mistakes can and still occur. The spectre of Marc Forster's Quantum Of Solace is a mere one degree of separation away. The hope was that Mendes, given his acclaimed background in Drama both on-screen and on-stage, would certainly stimulate our minds even if he fell short of quickening our pulses.

It is important therefore to begin by saying that Mendes does both, fluently, with purpose, and with a series of low-key nods to the sea of disparate styles and moods the Bond series has laid down over the years. After a bungled mission to apprehend a suspect attempting to flee with a hard-drive of all known NATO agents - via a breathless, joyously familiar pre-credits sequence - we find Bond MIA, enjoying a fortuitous sabbatical as he nurses an injured shoulder with no clear intent of returning to the fold any time soon. A terrorist attack on MI6 soon triggers the Pavlovian call to Queen and country, and it's not long before he's giving chase once more. His toxicology report might exhibit a dependence on pills and booze, but there's that almost reckless addiction to single-minded pursuit that's lurking just below the surface that Craig's made his Bond's defining feature. Physically, he's as buff as ever. Bond seemingly aces the tests that decide his re-insertion into the field, but for perhaps the first time, we are shown that no amount of exercise or experience can re-vitalise an ageing body or mind. MI6's methodology is being called into question by the chairman of the Intelligence and Security committee Gareth Mallory (Fiennes), a bureaucrat intent on mothballing M (Dench, ever marvellous) and her old-school ways. With confirmation that The Wire and Luther actor Idris Elba has met with Barbara Broccoli, evolution is clearly on people's minds, both on and off-screen. Times are uncertain indeed. 

It seems fitting then that we're presented with something of a retro-villain in Javier Bardem's wonderfully unhinged portrayal of Roaul Silva, Skyfall's antagonist. Like the entirely fittingly traditional if unadventurous title song performed by Adele, Bardem's Silva seems to tie in with the feeling of herritage's last hurrah. It's a good hour before we even get to see Bardem, his peroxide hair and nonchalant Bane-like swagger marking him out as one of the more memorable Bond villains in recent years, and although there are several memorable scenery-chewing confrontations with him - in particular, a suitably creepy first meeting with Bond that suggests Silva wants to be, beat up, and be in Bond all at the same time - there's nothing particularly memorable about Silva's inevitable demise. Such is the price of convention. Elsewhere there's a welcome return from Q Branch as Ben Whishaw inherits the mantle with quiet dignity and intelligence, and Bérénice Marlohe as Sévérine suggests real inner terror behind the glamourous exterior as Silva's moll, a former child-sex worker, whom, it is implied, has developed Stockholm Syndrome towards her captor. Thomas Newman inherits scoring duties from David Arnold who had his hands full with MDing the Olympics, and produces a typically sonically busy and intricate palette, including a gorgeous and stately Barryesque horn motif that harks back to Connery-era Bond. 

But this always has been about Daniel Craig. The craignotbond websites now a distant memory, he has arguable done more for the character since Sean Connery, and in Skyfall, we have his most personal story to date. Far from an exhaustive psychological case study, we are given enough information about Bond's history to preserve his humanity and distance us from viewing him as the cold-blooded killing machine we were always threatened with merely seeing him as. Success then. Mendes has crafted a thoughtful, exciting and faithful Bond film that both honours the institution as well as laying the foundations for progression. Craig is signed on for two further films, the handover has begun, but Skyfall reminds us of the importance of lineage as an integral part of future success.