Skyfall is the latest James Bond film, as directed by Sam Mendes, which I felt I should make clear, as there is always so little pre-publicity around these releases. (You’d think the marketing people would splatter the poster on every bus and ensure every newspaper runs through every Bond Girl yet again, wouldn’t you? Pathetic.) But, now it has quietly sneaked up on us, is it any good? Yes, it is rather. It takes up the baton which Casino Royale proffered but Quantum of Solace dropped. By this, I mean although all the furniture is in place — the cars the gadgets the women the stunts the exotic locations — it further explores Bond as a fully-fledged character, and has emotional heft. Actually, something quite Freudian emerges. Bond, it seems, has mummy issues, with M emerging as a surrogate mother of sorts. Neat. Interesting. If I’d been asked to title this film, I’d have called it The Spy Who Loved M, but I wasn’t, and if you don’t ask you don’t get. Still, never mind. Their loss.
The film, as tradition demands, erupts on screen with a 20-minute all-action pre-title sequence taking in a motorbike chase across the rooftops of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and a fight atop a hurtling train but not, alas, a high-speed car chase through a busy market so stalls can topple and melons and oranges can spill everywhere. Only joshing you. Of course there is a car chase through a busy market, knocking over stalls and spilling oranges and melons everywhere, you big ninny. This is a Bond film. Then it’s the titles and Adele belting out the theme tune and then we are in London, with M. M is, of course, played by Judi Dench, who is quite my favourite actress (although don’t tell Meryl!).
M is in trouble. Under her jurisdiction, cyber terrorists have stolen a hard drive containing a complete list of Nato operatives working undercover and have started publishing the names online. (A nod to Assange and WikiLeaks?) M is under pressure to quit, particularly after MI6 goes up in smoke, and seems to be the terrorist’s main target. Bond (Daniel Craig) must protect her. Craig is still the best Bond there has ever been, in my opinion, which isn’t worth much, I admit. (I once tried selling my opinions on eBay, and didn’t get a single bid, even though I offered free delivery!) He has a face that looks like a hammered pumpkin; a fact that shouldn’t work, but does. His Bond is authoritative yet thoughtful and introspective and aware of his own mortality. When he first meets the new Q (Ben Whishaw), who looks about 12, it’s in front of a Turner at the National Gallery. ‘What do you see?’ asks Bond. ‘An old war ship being hauled away for scrap,’ replies Q.
Bond jets across the world. Shanghai, Macau but not Shoeburyness, even though, as far as Essex estuary destinations go, it’s as good as any. There are casinos and yachts and lavish hotels, as this is not a film for the economic downturn. You don’t, for example, see Bond haggling for his gadgets on Tottenham Court Road, or carpooling with other secret agents who happen to be going his way. And the villain? In this instance it isn’t a nation state or a Cold War enemy but Silva (Javier Bardem), who has a very personal grudge against M. Bardem wears a blond wig and has obviously been given a licence to camp it up Hannibal Lecter-style, which is fun.
The Bond girl (Bérénice Marlohe) makes only the briefest appearance. The most audacious moment is when Silva runs his fingers across Bond’s bare chest and across his thighs. ‘What is your training for this?’ Silva asks. ‘What makes you think it’s my first time?’ asks Bond, who went to Eton, so knows a thing or two.
There are some clever self-references. When Bond is offered a cocktail that’s been shaken but not stirred, he simply says: ‘Perfect.’ The Aston Martin is introduced with a wink. But this is mostly a film about the relationship between Bond and M, who end up under siege in Bond’s childhood home, a deserted house on the Scottish grouse moors. Here, we learn more about Bond’s back story. Here, Bond cries (but in a manly way!). There are longueurs in this film and, as I’m not an action fan, I found the action scenes went on for far, far too long, but as an attempt to fill in Bond as a character, rather than just make the same film over, Mendes has succeeded, I think. It should have been The Spy Who Loved M but if you don’t ask you don’t get, like I said.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 27 October 2012