Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bonds of Love and Hate: a review of Skyfall

The real James Bond was an American ornithologist and a world renowned expert on the birds of the Caribbean.  When author Ian Fleming was birdwatching in Jamaica, his guide would have been Bond’s Birds of the West Indies, the definitive textbook of avifauna in the region.  In 1953, Fleming wrote the spy novel Casino Royale and gave his hero the “brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon” name of the ornithologist.  James Bond, he said, was the dullest name he had ever heard and a suitable one for the “anonymous blunt instrument” of state policy.

By the time Fleming died in 1964, the Bond character had featured in 12 novels and two short stories. Perhaps more importantly he had made a successful transition to the big screen in three movies. Fleming didn’t immediately like the look of the little known Sean Connery before the filming of Dr No in 1962. “I’m looking for Commander Bond and not an overgrown stunt-man,” Fleming said.  Connery’s casting as the first Bond owed much to Dana Broccoli, wife of producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli. Broccoli was convinced of Connery’s sex appeal and a new image was born. In the end Fleming was so impressed by Connery he added a Scottish back story in the later novels.

Fifty years on, the writers of the latest Bond film have added a further Scottish twist in Skyfall, the 32nd entry in the durable franchise. The current Bond, Daniel Craig is from Cheshire (a fact perhaps responsible for his statement in the film during the word association when he equates Country with England) but the Bond character supposedly grew up on the remote Scottish property of Skyfall. Either way the Bond series has become a classic British institution and Bond himself the embodiment of British stiff upper lip and never say die exemplified by the Queen's complicity in the Olympic opening ceremony parachute landing.

And despite the confusion over nationality, Craig is a classic Fleming Bond. Craig is a silent, often morose, blunt instrument, or as Fleming put it “Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure”.  Skyfall captures most of the Bond nuances. There is the classy, brassy theme music, the femme fatale Bond girls, the malevolent hero, the vintage cars and suits, the “before I kill you, Mr Bond" moments and the usual spats with authority. As M (an almost wistful Judi Dench in her final outing in the role) noted, “orphans make the best agents” and no challenge is too big or too dangerous for our hero, who always retains a sense of style and dignity no matter how hairy the situation.

And matters do become extremely hairy when the lead villain is finally introduced 70 minutes into the film in a memorable long-take entrance.  Spanish actor Javier Bardem has already brilliantly played one baddie. His psychopathic assassin Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men won him a best supporting Oscar in 2007. Bardem’s CV is impressive and he wasn’t immediately sold on the idea of becoming a Bond villain. Director Sam Mendes promised Bardem he could develop the character and said the ideas about the way he looked and the hair colour -were Bardem's own. "I thought they weren't going to work," Mendes said.  "All of them worked.”

In one of Bardem’s most famous film performances, he plays the Cuban homosexual author Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Knabel’s Before Night Falls. Bardem recreates some of the sexual tension in that film when as Skyfall villain Silva, he interrogates Bond and runs his fingers across Bond's bare chest, before parting his legs. "What's your regulation training for this?" Silva asked him. Bond’s wisecrack "What makes you think it's my first time?" does nothing to dispel the notion a gay Bond might be possible.

If such a prospect would leave Fleming turning in his grave, he would be little happier with the other major sexual relationship in the film, that of Bond and M (or “Emma” as Albert Finch's gamekeeper Kincade insisted on calling her). Dench is a convincing hard-nosed matriarch whose tears for a supposedly dead Bond she cannot shed are instead provided by the rain outside her Millbank window. If it is love, it must remain a taboo as her firm insistence he could not sleep at her house showed. The oedipal undertones are underscored by the baddie Silva’s referral to her as “mother” and “mummy”. Bond shows more ornithological reserve but the tenderness in their relationship is obvious all the same.

With car chases and spectacular action sequences, Skyfall remains a commercial product designed to sell lots of theatre tickets. And though it has succeeded in being the best selling Bond movie yet, it is not the only attraction. As the minimalist gadgets supplied by Q show, Bond is a killing machine who must do most of the legwork himself. The audience is forced to either work backwards from Silva’s taunts or fill in the gaps themselves to put a human face on the enduring anonymous blunt hero.Craig’s “unromantic Anglo-Saxon” Bond remains, like the original’s birds, an enigma we never tire of watching.

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