independent

filmREVIEW: Skyfall

Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench
Distributor: Sony Pictures International
Released: 26 October 2012

Reviewer Zachary Boren

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[This article contains spoilers]

James Bond. He’s had 23 movies over 50 years. Six different actors have played him in the big screen series, and there have been five eras for the character (sorry Lazenby). The current incarnation, Daniel Craig’s, has deviated somewhat from what 007 has traditionally been about. Since his introduction in 1962’s Dr No, James Bond has been the male fantasy, the ultimate aspiration. For the longest time Bond was simply cool; he drank martinis, killed and karate chopped all the baddies, slept with all the beautiful women, and he never cried (except Lazenby). It was a formula that worked, and only the backdrop would change. But somewhere down the line, around The World Is Not Enough (1997), it stopped working. The world had changed, the audience had changed, and so must Bond.

In the last three Bond films, all starring Craig, there has been a concerted effort to give the character depth. Perhaps most significant is the introduction of continuity and the acknowledgement of time passing. Until Casino Royale (2006) the Bond films were absolutely self-contained. Not only this but the Bond films of the 20th century were careful not to disrupt the fantasy. Though Roger Moore was 57 when he starred in A View To A Kill (1985), Bond’s age was not mentioned. On the other hand, Craig’s Bond in Skyfall is considered a relic of another time, technically outdated and physically decaying. This Bond is mortal. This Bond’s bullet wounds no longer magically heal, and neither do his psychological traumas. He loses Vesper, his ladylove, at the end of Casino Royale and he spends the entirety of Quantum of Solace, the following film, grieving. Skyfall completes the reconstruction of a James Bond, now a real boy, and demonstrates the fertile territory the franchise can now explore.

The foundation of this new Bond is his relationship with M, the head of MI6. As played by Dame Judi Dench, M is the closest thing Bond has to a mother. Her 00 agents are her children and 7 is clearly her favourite. It is revealed in Skyfall that Bond is an orphan – “orphans make the best agents” – and it is also suggested that his only relationship is with M. She is not an affectionate mother figure, more reserved, and even a bit cold. She risks his life in an operation at the film’s outset, a moment that super-villain Silva (Javier Bardem) emphasizes. Silva, formerly an MI6 agent loyal to M, was supposed to have been sacrificed years before. He had been M’s golden boy before Bond, and is deeply hurt that he has been replaced. Silva wants Bond to see that M does not care for him. Bond failed his physical and psychological examinations, yet M put him back in the field. Is this a sign of indifference towards him or of faith in him? Silva believes it’s the former: “Mommy’s been bad.”

In Skyfall, M is the ultimate Bond girl: Mother. It’s an evident demonstration of the Oedipus complex, her two agents fighting for her love. Silva and Bond have a sibling rivalry, a dynamic that Freud considered to be an extension of the Oedipus complex. They compete for M, even if they don’t know what they want from her. Theirs is a rivalry of biblical proportions, comparable to Cain, Abel and the jealousy that gave birth to fratricide. The homoerotic undertones, most obvious when Silva has captured 007, further complicate this volatile relationship.

Silva is a rare kind of Bond villain; his evil is not so simple. When he bites down on his emergency cyanide tablet, his mouth is destroyed and his face disfigured. When his ‘mother’ allows his death Silva has been psychologically annihilated. This is a place of terror and it inevitably pushes him to psychosis: fear and devastation have driven him mad. Silva’s pursuit of power, particularly over M, is the only way he can keep himself together. His dentures are shiny and new but they are not real; this Silva is novel and angry and bloodthirsty because he was abandoned, left to die by the mother he loved and whose approval he sought. In the movie’s climactic scene, Silva approaches M with a gun in hand. She is already wounded, clutching her bleeding abdomen. Upon realizing this, Silva leaps to her aid, concerned for her well being: “What have they done to you!?” As he had done earlier in the film, Silva hesitates to kill M. He’s conflicted; he’s won her but he doesn’t know what to do next. He decides that they should die together with one shared bullet as if they are one person. He may want revenge but only because her forgiveness and love seem impossible. This is not a simple “I want to rule the world” baddie but a hysterical child who has been abandoned by his mother.

The reception to Craig’s Bond films, especially Skyfall, suggests that future editions will continue humanizing the character, exploring his past, questioning his future, slowly approaching his death.

Zachary Boren has been the Film Coordinator at The British Independent Film Awards and regularly contributes to Raindance Film Festival.