Skyfall (2012)

Skyfall is all over the place. The film jumps from a cyber-hacking informed thriller, to a commentary on old-fashioned espionage and then morphs into a campy Bond homage before the credits roll. There are moments where the film displays a more European art-house sensibility, evoking Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. But then the film remembers that it’s a Bond film and falls back on sexy ladies and gratuitous explosions to perpetuate thrills.

This is not to say Skyfall is bad. In fact, the film’s plurality is part of what makes Skyfall a memorable and distinct Bond film. Pacing, setting, story points and even the main character changes from scene to scene and somehow throughout Skyfall remains intruding. It says something that Judi Dench’s M gets just as much screen time as Daniel Craig’s Bond, and somehow it never feels like Bond is shoehorned out of his own film.

Likewise, newcomers Ben Whishaw, a young, hip Q for a more tech-savvy age,  Ralph Fiennes, bureaucrat Gareth Mallory, and Naomie Harris, fellow MI6 operative Eve, all get enough of their own character beats to feel like they’re more than just supporting cast. Writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan weave what might be the most involving cast of a Bond film and yet it never feels like a drag to spend many scenes away from Bond.

Editor Stuart Baird and director Sam Mendes achieve this affect in large part through creating a true sense of passage of time when dealing with Bond. While a good chunk of the first half of the film is only met with a spattering of Bond, it’s through visual trickery that Baird and Mendes convey the experience of being with Bond over a period of months, a number of lingering shots establishing the slow physical and mental drudgery of James Bond. It’s in these moments that the film feels the closest to a Bond film directed by Melville.

And when the action does come, there are moments where it’s a showcase for Roger Deakins superb cinematography. The Shanghai sequence in particular displays a magnificent use of lights, reflections and shadows in a sequence that feels more like a fever-dream than an action set-piece. And the climax that takes place on the Scottish Moors is shot less for action and more for ambience and mood, a chilling, musty battleground of flame and shadows.

These elements make it sound like the kind of Bond film a French New Wave director might make, but the moment Javier Bardem shows up, the film becomes old style Bond through and through. Bardem goes for maximum ham and while his performance is both hilarious and creepy, it’s clearly a homage to the Bond villain of a bygone era, akin more to an age where SPECTRE’s head had an evil cat to pet and Christopher Lee played assassin games with Roger Moore.

It shows that the film isn’t afraid to be silly and have fun, but it’s also a big step back. Craig era Bond had brought a more sinister Bond world to light, one with more emotional gravitas and weight and Bardem’s performance and the Bond homages that line the way are a throwback to an era of Bond that isn’t nearly as serious as the first half of the film.

The tonal inconsistency makes Skyfall a messy film. That’s not to say it’s bad. The juxtaposition makes for an intriguing Bond film which is just as engrossing cinematically as it is entertaining. That’s not something one can say of other Bond films. It feels like it’s able to escape a lot of the hindrances of the Bond series only to return to them. For Bond fans, that might make Skyfall all the more of an achievement, but it makes for a film that isn’t nearly as strong or holistic as Bond’s finest films.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing