Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Editor’s Note: There are some fairly minor *SPOILERS* here that you won’t be able to sneak around.
“Orphans make the best agents,” M (Judi Dench) says in her characteristically matter-of-fact manner. The statement probably suggests something about the shadow that is cast over the latest James Bond film, Skyfall (Dir. Sam Mendes). We first see the famed British secret agent (Daniel Craig) at the end of a hallway, where, at first, he is a mere shadow that suddenly appears, accompanied by a jolt of orchestral 007 theme music. The shadowy figure moves toward the camera until we see only those hardened, ghostly eyes faintly lit amidst his silhouette of a pointed gun stance. Shortly thereafter, we’re treated to a compellingly dreary title sequence (featuring Adele). The opening theme includes images of blood loss, Bond-as-target-boards set on fire, a shadowy woman having us look down the barrel of her pointed gun, and a grave yard. The recurring setting during the montage is what we come to find out is Bond’s childhood home. And it also includes Bond firing shots at his shadow, and his dim reflection in a broken mirror. There’s a shadow cast over Bond; he’s shrouded in darkness.
Skyfall opens with Bond and his fellow MI6 agent (Naomie Harris) on a mission to recover a stolen computer hard drive containing the details of most of the undercover NATO agents working within terrorist organizations. In hot pursuit of the murdering thief mercenary named Patrice, Bond is shot in the shoulder, and eventually, he is accidentally shot by his partner when she–receiving direct orders from M–tries to take out the killer while Bond is engaged in hand-to-hand combat with him. Bond is presumed dead. But, unsurprisingly, we come to learn that he survived the gunfire and the subsequent fall, and used the under-the-radar status to retire, notably, to a life of booze and aimless ennui. That is, until he sees the Mother Country on television. In a direct attack on M, MI6 is hacked and a deadly explosion erupts from the office buildings, killing several employees. Through a mysterious hacker’s message, M is asked to think on her sins.
After emerging from the shadows of presumed-dead retirement, the aging agent seems a shadow of his former self in terms of his fitness for the position. His shot has lost accuracy. His sprint has lost a step. Perhaps most notably, he’s declared psychologically unfit to return to service. Yet–perhaps to Bond’s detriment–M reinstates him anyway. In a time when MI6 is under direct attack, M seems to trust Bond more than anyone, and he–an orphan–seems to refer to her as “Mom” in an especially significant maternal way. M needs Bond, too, because an uncontrollable evil is rising, beating MI6 at its own game of shadows. What’s more, this nebulous infiltrator also knows M, rather bitterly, as “Mother.”
Most notable about Mendes’s direction is undoubtedly the visual dazzle he brings to the franchise (owing much to cinematographer Roger Deakins). He achieves a seemingly darker, emotionally resonant tone through formal flourishes–most notably the recurring presence of shadows and silhouettes. In addition to the opening scene referenced above, there’s also a breathtaking early fight scene that takes place in a Shanghai highrise. The cinematography in the scene is brilliant, capturing Bond and Patrice as silhouetted figures fighting amidst glassy reflections and bright neon lights. Further, Bond is frequently captured in a way that emphasizes his wearied composition: lined face, glazed eyes, slouched demeanor. Several critics have discussed Skyfall as a more substantial film than its predecessors, but this seems most attributable to the story it bespeaks in character-defining images and atmospheric dread.
Bond’s nemesis in the film is Silva (played memorably by Javier Bardem). Silva doesn’t have boring, grandiose plans to take over the world through nuclear power. No, his concerns are much more particular, and much more interesting. A former MI6 agent, Silva wants M to pay for her sins because he was a victim of one of her more pragmatic ones. Silva was an ornery agent who M gave over to the Chinese in exchange for six agents. Tortured by the Chinese and eventually released, Silva has been a tortured soul ever since. Bond and Silva mirror one another in that M had deemed Bond expendable earlier in the film. Bond remains devoted to the cause; Silva believes he was just a punished cypher. Both seem to carry the burdens of lifelong infiltration, bearing the scars of living in a constancy of undetected distance. The effects on Bond are shown during his brief retirement. The effects on Silva are first shown formally when he is introduced at a menacing distance, walking toward a tied-up Bond. The distant shot to introduce Silva suggests that his villainy is one of derangement. He’s gone off the sanity grid, toting a quiet, comically cynical rage.
In an interesting move, the end of the film takes us to Bond’s youthful stomping grounds; it’s a rare, direct trip into the place which birthed the orphaned agent, forming his aloof psyche. And, perhaps, we’re given some insight into why Bond remains devoted to M and to the Mother Country–because in the shadow of Skyfall it’s the only maternal respite he knows. But maybe it’s not a good family to be adopted into. If there’s a big takeaway from Skyfall it’s that espionage and cyber-terrorist warfare grinds at the humanity of all of the players involved, no matter who is more the “good guy” in the game–look no further than the regrettable treatment of Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe). (Bond tries to rescue her from Silva, but he’s also quite open to having sex with her not long after finding out she was a sex slave.) Ultimately, the main players in this undercover war end up in a church. Revenge is shown to be fleeting; sins are paid for. And you even get the faint sense in this film that it’s a universe in which Bond might have to pay for his “hobbies” one day, too. For he seems to “enjoy [the shadow of] death” a little more than resurrection.