Skyfall: a mixed bag, Mr Bond

This rambling contains spoilers.

Look away now if you haven’t yet seen Skyfall and care about such things.

Actually, although there are spoilers, they’re unlikely to spoil much, as most of the moments referenced are telegraphed well in advance during the film. But still, it’s only polite to warn you …

Depending on who you read, Skyfall is either a triumphant return to form/extension of the ‘new’ Bond, or it’s so sexist and misogynistic that any right-thinking person will run screaming from the cinema in a boiling fug of offended hysteria provoked by the sheer unreconstructed horror of it all.

Having finally got round to seeing it last night (in the company of fine folk of the female persuasion, none of whom appeared desperately outraged afterwards, although there were some raised eyebrows), I’m of the opinion that it’s a little bit of both, and not quite as strong in either direction as has been implied elsewhere.

First off, as a piece of entertainment, I enjoyed it. I may not approve of all of it, but as a film it was generally satisfying. I quite like Daniel Craig’s Bond: harder; superficially colder; a bit more of a bastard; capable of actually being hurt both physically and emotionally. Arguably appropriately maladjusted for the job he does. And whilst it’s still quite clearly hokum, I also quite like the de-gadgeting, and the move away from lots and lots of big set pieces that become increasingly over the top and implausible. Not that Skyfall doesn’t have its moments – it is a Bond film after all – but they’re comparatively few and far between, which gives the whole thing a much slower pace. And not just because it’s two hours twenty minutes long.

OK, so it’s a bit Bond-does-Bourne, and the plot could perhaps do with a few more big action sequences to paper over the cracks and lack of genuine emotional depth, but it mostly works. After all, it’s fisticuffs entertainment writ large.

Big red button

Skyfall also works as the massive reset switch it’s clearly supposed to be. Although I’m not sure they necessarily intended to reset quite as much as they have. Or if they did, that it was wise.

(Major spoilers after this point)
By the end of the film, after repeatedly being beaten about the ears with unsubtle clanging statements that “Sometimes the old ways are the best” and Bond announcing that his hobby is “resurrection” we’ve gone from the relatively modern MI6 with Judy Dench as “M” to the creation of a new Moneypenny; a new, male, striped shirt and braces wearing “M” in the mold of Bernard Lee and Robert Brown; leather chairs and wood panelling; and a not-so subtle implication that underneath the modern gloss, it’s still basically all about shagging birds and blowing away bad guys, old school stylee. A pox on this modern world, let men be men etc.

To hit the reset switch, to get back to the beginning, we are taken on a slightly weird journey. Some of it’s quite clever. Some if it’s laid on a bit thick. And some of it, when you think about it, is a little bit uneasy.

Slick modernity, empowered and powerful women, youth, the digital age: all are gradually whittled away. The opening sequence marries modern tech (stealing hard drives) with a good old school location (Turkish bazaars, all dust, hustle-bustle and antiquity), and the uneasy juxtaposition between modernity and the Bond universe develops and unravels from there. Raoul Silva, Mr Baddie, turns out to be a Bond-gone-bad. An earlier incarnation, wigged out and gone rogue, now adapted to the digitial age. but ultimately thrown back on good old-fashioned hands-on confrontation. MI6 is forced to relocate from the slick modern building on the Thames to World War II underground bunkers and command tunnels. Bond’s fellow agent from the opening sequence is gradually pushed back from being essentially an equal, to a less active operative, and ultimately to being M’s desk-based PA. And for the final showdown it’s a tumult of going back: back to the Aston Martin DB5; back to Bond’s childhood; back to an empty and decaying old house; back to an isolated, decidedly non-technical location. Back to another time, another place.

If you don’t pick up on the message that the Bond franchise is winding back the clock from 2012 to 1962, you probably shouldn’t drink so heavily before watching.

You insensitive sexist bastards

All of which is fine and dandy, and works within its own frame of reference. But … not all of it sits easy on anything more than a slightly superficial analysis. I think that Giles Coren may be over-playing his right-on New Man credentials a little, but the bloke’s got a point. A female M being replaced by a male M – that’s a huge shrug for me. Women replace men, men replace women, such is the nature of things. Admittedly the wider context might give it a bit more weight, but on its own … meh.

The direct return of the classic “Oops, Bond stuck his knob in me, now I’m a dead woman” role is not wildly liberated, but in keeping with the previous 50 years. Chucking in an arbitrary back story on childhood abduction, rape/the forced sex trade, and abject fear of The Man, only to resolve it by having Bond sneak into Sévérine’s shower and give her a good old seeing to is, perhaps, not the most sensitive or intelligent treatment of the issues so casually brought up and then utterly discarded. In fact, it sucks. The fuck’em-n-chuck’em credentials could have been established perfectly well without making appeals to horrific things and then doing absolutely nothing positive with them.

As to the quip about wasting whiskey that follows Sévérine’s untimely exit, that can be seen one of two ways. To me it came across as Bond fronting up and not giving verbal vent to his true feelings – taking the stiff upper lip schtick above and beyond. But I can see how it didn’t impress Mr Coren; if my more redemptive reading’s right, it wasn’t telegraphed as much as almost everything else in the film.

Highly trained agent in whom we have invested much, take this dictation …

As mentioned above: start the film as hard-driving, capable, gun-toting field agent; end it pressing the intercom button to send Bond in to see M. WTF? I mean, seriously, WTF? OK, it provides a nice little homage/gag/’feel good’ moment at the close of the film, but unless Moneypenny’s future role isn’t going to be constrained by her treatment in the back catalogue, that’s just wrong. Deeply wrong.

 The good, the bad, and the ugly

As per the start, as a brain-out action film, taken on its own terms, Skyfall is an enjoyable event. The Craig/Mendes Bond is generally enjoyable to watch. Javier Bardem is a great archetype baddie. Ben Wishaw as Q is actually very good (wasn’t sure for the first few lines) although as an IT person, I could have done without the awful bullshit in the decryption sequence (not Ben’s fault, of course, and not as bad as a lot of films). The to and fro between Bond and Q worked well, even whilst it continued to hammer home the old vs new theme – heck, even the ‘new’ MI6 was actually quite ‘old’ in the presentation of just a gun and tracking device, with very 60s styling.

And, lack of subtlety aside (casual racism moment: I can only assume it was made for an American audience), the big reset is quite neatly done, going back, cutting things away, and ending up more or less where the whole thing started.

However, it could have been done with a lot more style if they’d gone for resetting the playing field without also celebrating and reinforcing such a crappy attitude to sex, women and ye olde male/female relationships on all levels. Yes, Bond’s a dinosaur. Yes, part of the charm of the films is the gleeful lack of being right-on. Yes, we want Bond to be tough, sexy, closed and hard. No, we don’t want him leading therapy sessions where we all share our angst and (metaphorically) bleed all over the floor. But there are ways to handle it with panache, and ways not to. And Skyfall has pretty much nailed the “not to” angle, with the same dexterity that Bond nails pretty much everything that moves. A touch less brutality, a touch more charm and a fleeting nod towards compassion can go a long way. Bond can be a sexist git, but you don’t want the film to be sexist too.

But yeah, I’ll be buying the DVD to add to the collection. Because it’s only a film, and moral outrage only goes so far. And ultimately I’m not entirely convinced that underneath it all, part of the message of the film isn’t that sometimes, as it happens, the old ways aren’t the best.