Focus shifts for James Bond have never been uncommon – Casino Royale’s gritty realism looked very different to the straight up action of his predecessor, and neither had very much in common with Sean Connery’s suave and wisecracking spy. However, whilst the new Skyfall is set firmly in the present, it marks a welcome move back towards the Bond of fifty years ago.
Once the film gets going, it’s not hugely surprising to find a plot initially based around cyber-terrorism. This kind of story is becoming more common for blockbuster action flicks in general, and Skyfall is clever enough not to dwell too long on techy details: later scenes show a shift towards more character-driven drama which suits both James and his opposite, the unnerving Silva (Javier Bardem) far better.
Daniel Craig seems far more fluid in the title role than he has done previously. Whilst perhaps less is demanded of him emotionally here than before, Craig depicts Bond at his lowest ebb in a believable manner. He still has very little actual spying to do, but handles the chases and fights with a style and aplomb. Silva, meanwhile, is an excellent bad guy – with a disconcerting manner and an odd haircut rivalling that of Anton Chigurh, his screen presence is second to none, whilst his backstory makes him more than just a cipher, adding him into the shadow-world inhabited by MI6. Naomie Harris as Eve also acts as a foil for James in several scenes, her assurance and bravado providing a suitable partner for the verbal sparring in which Bond excels.
However, it’s Judi Dench portraying M who really steals the show; her part here is far more prominent than ever before. It’s easy to see why they made this decision: M stuck behind a desk gives no real opportunity to explore her character or relationship with James. Her stern demeanour has long been a mainstay of the franchise, but it’s here we finally get to see a little of what drives her, what ties her to the agents she seems to so ruthlessly control. M may not be renowned as the most sympathetic of taskmasters, but both the re-emergence of former protégé Silva and her own struggle against the difficult choices she’s forced to make allow for Dench to add new dimensions to her character, a task she rises to meet with ease.
Action sequences come with regularity, and are varied enough to remain interesting and exciting throughout, as well as showing a tendency back towards the Bond we knew of old – a fight on a bridge over a pit, which contains what look like komodo dragons, is a particular highlight. Throughout, it is a movie very aware of its origins: at one point the new Q (Ben Whishaw) askes James if he expected an exploding pen. As he puts it, they “don’t really go in for that sort of thing any more”. Locations, too, drift back towards the more traditional; our villain has somehow managed to acquire a proper secret base, and it’s only a shame that more wasn’t made of the spectacular setting. Still, from the rooftops of Istanbul to the glass towers of Shanghai, to the new MI6 headquarters in a vaulted underground hall, backgrounds are never short of detail and bring back the sense of exoticism characteristic of several early Bond films.
There are still a couple of awkward moments: product placement is never welcome in any film, no matter how cleverly disguised, and when it is as blatant as it is here it can really break the flow of the action. The worst examples are fortunately dealt with within the opening sequences, and were apparently essential to the movie’s funding, but it still feels artistically inexcusable. Awkward too when henchmen simply can’t seem to learn when to stand a foot further back, letting a couple of potentially tense situations slip into predictability.
Director Sam Mendes is careful mostly to stick to the tried and tested – whilst locations are well chosen, camerawork mostly just follows the action, rather than exploring any slightly more innovative possibilities. At least he’s wisely chosen to eschew the Bourne-style fight footage so ubiquitous in modern action movies; shots of flailing limbs and wild camera swings are kept to a minimum, making for a far more comfortable viewing experience. Colours occasionally tend towards the lurid, but a thrilling climax makes full use of the Scottish countryside and the titular grey stone manor.
Perhaps most worrying was an interlude portraying one of the female characters. Bond’s first meeting with Sévérine (played by Bérénice Marlohe) shows her confide in him a lifetime of slavery and (presumably sexual) abuse. It is then rather disquieting to see at their next meeting, Bond feels comfortable not only in entering her yacht and then bathroom unannounced, but in joining her in the shower without even making her aware of his presence. This may be the James Bond way, but in a series which has made effort otherwise to bring the feel forward into the modern day, it feels both antiquated and actually rather unpleasant.
Still, Skyfall does much more right than it does wrong. From the opening theme, featuring Adele’s voice over a suitably dreamlike credit sequence, to the final encounter with the deranged Silva, it feels unequivocally like a traditional Bond movie in a way that recent efforts haven’t. This is what these films have always been about, and in returning to the older tone, Skyfall is ultimately an exhilarating and satisfying watch.