What Makes You Think This is My First Time?
“Take the shot.” The moment is suitably tense when M (Judi Dench) orders her field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to shoot at James Bond (Daniel Craig). M is back in London, at MI6 headquarters, monitoring the pursuit of a villain. The scene—the opening action bit for Skyfall—cuts back and forth between the chase, which involves cars and guns and at this moment has Bond atop a racing train, fighting hand-to-hand with his opponent, and M. Her perspective is limited: no matter how fancy the tech and how precise Eve’s reporting, she’s at a distance, making decisions based on experience that may or may not be relevant to the situation at hand.
In this case, the decision sets in motion a chunk of Skyfall‘s plot, wherein both M and Bond’s capabilities will be questioned. Are they too old? Are they dated? Have they lost some steps or will or perspective? Indeed, M is confronted with a series of cyber-invasions of MI6, invasions involving stolen information as well as material explosives (and dead bodies), challenges to her authority by government bureaucrat named Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) and worries about her leadership, and her increasingly suspect investment in Bond.
That investment is long-term of course, which means it may be admirable but it’s also creaky. Thus the rising doubts: Bond here looks broken and weary, an embodiment (like M) of a traditional model of international spydom, the one premised on national borders, white-Western-wealthy entitlements, and excessive consumptions of alcohol, cars, and women. It’s an investment that’s both narrative and meta, if you take the franchise as a whole, which is to say, even when M is not Judi Dench, over all of Ian Fleming’s books and some 50 years of Broccoli family movies. In these many iterations—even the silly one in outer space—Bond has maintained a certain emotional obscurity. In part this is a function of style, his designer outfits and preferred beverage, as well as performative cool and dominant masculinity. If he’s been haunted, that’s been mostly left to your imagination, perhaps inspired by Sean Connery’s (or Timothy Dalton’s) darkish allusiveness. Since Craig has come on board, beginning with Casino Royale in 2006, the darkishness has become more a story pronounced, less ish.
In Skyfall, a smart reassessment of the franchise even as it reinvigorates it, the background to that story comes to the foreground. Both thematic and elaborately plotted, Bond’s personal past here troubles his present, as well as that of M and MI6. By the time he and M have a face-to-face—specifically, when he arrives in her home with a bottle of Scotch in hand and a haggard face indicating the long hard road he’s traveled—both appear at once glad to see one another but also cold. When Bond learns MI6 has sold his flat, he pauses, then announces he’ll head to a hotel. “You’re bloody well not staying here!” asserts M, turning on her heel and leaving him alone in her deeply shadowed study.
This lays out one of the film’s primary concerns, the mother-son business between Bond and M. This is complicated when she’s reminded of a previous son-like agent, Silva (Javier Bardem), now feeling abandoned and vengeful. He and M share a history, full of pain and ambition, framed by large egos and high expectations. When Bond meets Silva, he’s the younger replacement son for a tetchy Silva; that he acts out his rage in an especially sensuous way: he’s gay in an old-fashioned, iniquitous mama’s boy way and means to threaten Bond with that very idea, and also brings to bear the menace of gayness to a traditional familial structure: in this Silva is an extremely conventional Bond villain, flamboyant and venal and cartoonish (that Bardem has become something of an expert at acting bad guys with his hairstyle only underlines Silva’s insidious fabulousness.
That Silva is also hateful towards girls makes him a very familiar Bond villain, that Bond witnesses (and also teases and exploits) Bond girls in multiple modes—efficient, fearful, abused, bloodied—makes his role here markedly antiquated too (that one of these girls is beige and Eurasian, played by Bérénice Lim Marlohe, gestures simultaneously to the franchise’s infamous colonialism and its efforts to seem hip). Bond’s tendency not to attach himself to girls has to do in this version with his relationship with M, both maternal and paternal here. By the time they make it t Bond’s actual boyhood home—with a wonderful caretaker played by the wonderful Albert Finney—you can hardly avoid seeing how the family lore that has produced Bond is turning archetypal à la Batman. This isn’t terrible, but it’s also a howling-wind-and-snow sort of setup, a long way from the gorgeous urban surfaces and ski chalets where he’s waged so much of his previous espionage.
That this environment seems appropriate by film’s end is a credit to director Sam Mendes and the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, who makes earlier scenes’ gorgeous surfaces (a fight choreographed as silhouettes in a highrise window against Shanghai’s neon nightscape is perversely lovely, despite and because of its brutality). Bond’s return to his childhood—as site and memory—isn’t precisely a new idea in heroic mythology, but it does make Bond a little less Bondish. That may be a good thing, and Craig, signed on for two more movies, scheduled for releases in 2014 and 2016, brings a sort of complicating cruelty and vulnerability to the series. Now that we know where he’s from, and have some perspective that we didn’t have before, Bond might move on. And maybe we can too.