This is the seventh time Judi Dench has played the enigmatic spy-chief M. But it is only in this storming new Bond movie that her M has really been all that she could be. Under the stylish direction of Sam Mendes, Dench’s M is quite simply the Bond girl to end all Bond girls. Watching this, I thought: of course. How could I have missed it? The real tension isn’t with Moneypenny, but with the boss herself. Now M is an imperious, subtly oedipal intelligence-matriarch with the double-O boys under her thumb. She’s treating them mean. She’s keeping them keen. And she is rewarded with passionate loyalty, varying with smouldering resentment. It’s a combination with its own unspoken eroticism, and it has also created the conditions for one of the most memorable Bond villains in recent times. M demands more and more from her agents, with less and less concern for their safety. At one stage, 007 actually appears in M’s apartment, late at night, after a difficult stretch in the field. Following a curt exchange, weary and somewhat hurt, Bond says he will find a hotel. “Well, you’re not staying here,” is M’s superbly timed and exquisitely hurtful reply.
The 50th anniversary of the big-screen Bond was the right time to pull off something big. Skyfall is a hugely enjoyable action spectacular, but more grounded and cogent than the previous and disappointing outing, Quantum of Solace. It finds the right position on the spectrum between extravagance and realism: what I think of as the imaginary line running from Bond’s invisible car in Die Another Day and Peter Guillam’s Citroën DS in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
We kickstart the movie with an uproarious chase scene in Istanbul featuring 007 and Bond’s glamorous colleague Eve, played by Naomie Harris. As well as revving up the film, this pre-credit sequence, with its cataclysmic finale, showcases a great new Bond theme song from Adele, Basseying those vocals mightily, and conveying the camp combination of Bond’s machismo and strange and preposterous vulnerability.
Daniel Craig’s Bond (above) looks older, more careworn, slightly more jug-eared. This is a Bond who has something to prove, and who could be damaged goods, physically and even mentally. Even at his lowest, however, he is still capable of pulling off a very scary drinking trick involving a scorpion. But now he must face one of his tastiest adversaries ever – the chilling Silva, played by Javier Bardem. Silva makes his first entrance from far away, a virtual dot on the horizon, giving a sinuous speech about what happens when rats fight each other. Gradually, his unsettling face comes into focus – quite a visual coup from Mendes and his cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Silva is intensely blond, in both his hair and eyebrows, a Nordic-baddie effect that is weirdly complemented or counteracted by his Spanish accent. He has a very funny, sinister habit of wincing and tsk-ing with an aesthete’s disdain, when 007 insists on foiling his plans. Various pundits have compared Bardem’s appearance in Skyfall to Julian Assange and Jimmy Savile. For me, he looks like a malign James Hunt, or a psychopathic, shorter-haired version of bluesman Johnny Winter. But the point is that Bond has the same hair colour. This is a blond-on-blond faceoff, and both Craig’s 007 and Bardem’s villain look like the 21st-century descendants of Robert Shaw’s peroxide Spectre baddie Grant in From Russia with Love. Silva is cut from the same cloth as 007 in many ways, and they have an emotional backstory with M. Yet despite the apparently new hi-tech dimension promised by Silva’s evil skills in cyber-terrorism and computer hacking, this is not a futuristic Bond. More like back to basics, and I’m not sure Mendes is particularly inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies. The scene in which 007 steps suavely into the shower with delectable Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) could have happened at any time in the last half-century.
As with all Bond movies, you will need a sense of humour to go with the flow, and the flow does not involve a plot in the boringly normal sense of the word: more the impressionistic effect of scenes and moments and performances – and an entertaining one comes from Ben Whishaw as the gadgetmeister, Q. In recent years, Bond fans have had to tolerate some appalling product placements: fortunately, Bond’s one appearance with a certain type of lager here is with his hand firmly over the logo. The biggest commercial branding is, I suspect, for a country, China: there are massive setpieces in Shanghai and Macau, and as with the recent sci-fi thriller Looper, a shrewd financial consideration may have been involved.
But what a rush! From the opening in Istanbul to the final siege shootout in the Scottish Highlands, this film is a supremely enjoyable and even sentimental spectacle, giving us an attractively human (though never humane) Bond. Despite the title, he is a hero who just keeps on defying gravity.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010