From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.
This one, timed as Sam Mendes’ 1917 arrives in cinemas, is from March 23rd, 2014…
For five decades of James Bond in cinema, arguably standing tall as the biggest and most successful film franchise of all time, there needed to be some kind of celebration. Not just fanfare, documentaries, look backs, ceremonies, interviews, but rather a celebration of what Bond is, what he means, why he remains relevant half a century on to a world immeasurably different from the one Ian Fleming created him in.
Skyfall turned out, perhaps beyond our expectations, to be all of those things – the clearest demonstrable examination of 007’s psyche we have ever seen, in which Sam Mendes continued the work began by Martin Campbell in Casino Royale (or I would argue GoldenEye infact) and not only gave us what we expect from a Bond movie–the glitz, glamour, action, suspense, wit–but equally delivered on meaningful drama, characterisation and subtext beyond the measure we usually get in this series. It’s been said by many – Skyfall isn’t just a Bond film, it’s a *film* and taking away the slightly derogatory context of that remark to a wonderful franchise, it remains true.
Skyfall is both a truly great Bond film and a great movie in its own right.
From the very first moment, Mendes makes his intentions clear. To a rousing brief Bond chord from Thomas Newman (peerlessly taking over from David Arnold with a score that’s up there with the Bond best), 007 steps into a blurred frame, Walther PPK in hand, and steps up to the clearing lens.
Daniel Craig, lithe and dangerous as ever, holding the frame with a power only Sean Connery ever achieved. Mendes wants us to know – this will be *about* Bond perhaps more than ever before. Yet he gives the people what they want with a barnstorming action sequence through Istanbul that recalls the grandeur of some of the best 007 pre-credits sequences – it’s arguably the biggest and strongest action sequence of the picture, but that doesn’t matter.
Mendes is well aware that the script–polished to its apex by John Logan–is strong enough that we don’t need relentless action beats to prop it up (a problem Quantum of Solace previously couldn’t escape), and after evoking the beginning of You Only Live Twice with how the sequence ends, Mendes is off–after a stunning title song visual from Daniel Kleinman–where he’s most comfortable: drama. He let’s the piece carefully build for a good 40 minutes, stripping Bond away to his weakest and most basic, exploring the key theme of the movie: ageing. M said it in GoldenEye, called him a “relic of the Cold War”, while Casino Royale had him prove himself worthy of the name. Skyfall is about the Bond franchise proving *itself* as an entity in a world that could have outgrown him, and in doing so Craig & Mendes both prove that, as Bond shows he’s more than just a ‘blunt instrument’, that we still need him more than ever.
Politics creeps in more than ever here too, but Mendes doesn’t let it swamp the movie. Marc Forster tried to awkwardly squeeze comment into Quantum of Solace previously, but here the pressure from Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory & the PM’s inquiry into Judi Dench’s M’s handling of MI6 is crucial to the story; infact, the truth is, Skyfall is as much about M as it is Bond. We all sensed this might be Dench’s last hurrah in a role she has defined her own perhaps even more than Bernard Lee at the beginning, and she’s as stalwart and carefully brilliant as ever. Through M, Mendes & Logan are commenting on the place not just of Bond, but the security services themselves – has the world changed too much to warrant 007 working in the shadows?
As M is pushed herself to the brink, her own tenure & age called into question, Bond becomes the answer as the perfect foil is lined up against him in Javier Bardem’s psychotic ex-agent turned terrorist Raoul Silva. Aside from arguably being a classically ‘Bondian’ villain in performance, composure and indeed costume (he owes a lot to Christopher Walken actually), Bardem fantastically plays the *true* relic of a bygone era; Silva was left adrift in those shadows, left to become a monstrous reflection of Bond and harbinger of M’s mistakes.
“Think on your sins” Silva tells her as his dangerous obsession with M grows, and we all do. Hence why everything feels so deeply personal, why it hurts, and why Mendes’ choice to root the climax in a Straw Dogs-esque pitched defence of Bond’s ancestral home deep in frozen Scotland (the titular ‘Skyfall’)–about as unglamorous as Bond has ever gotten–is a stroke of genius. It’s powerful, exciting, explosive, meaningful, revelatory (the series has never touched as close to Bond’s past as this does) and deeply moving once we reach the end. It also helps Albert Finney comes along and nigh on steals the entire film in a small but beautifully written role.
If Skyfall has a weakness, it’s that oddly enough for a Bond film it leaves the women behind. M aside, who effectively is the Bond girl in all but convention, Naomie Harris & especially Berenice Marlohe get short shrift in a story far more interested in the deeper psychological aspects of its key triumvirate: Bond, M & Silva. This is perhaps to be expected and is barely a criticism, as Sam Mendes gets so much right. He brings his theatrical bent and infuses the story with pure drama while expertly balancing action, a cast better than any Bond movie perhaps before, a script polished wonderfully with more than enough memorable moments (who will ever forget Silva’ amazingly theatrical entrance?) and indeed gorgeous cinematography from Roger Deakins that seeps through this beautifully shot piece of work.
And if personally for me it doesn’t quite edge out Casino Royale or GoldenEye as definitive Bond films, it arguably stands as a stronger movie than both and with that punch the air final scene reaffirms James Bond 007 as the greatest hero in cinematic history.
Nobody does it better.