There were moments during Skyfall when I wondered: How did they ever manage without Judi Dench? How many actresses can you think of who can recite Alfred Lord Tennyson and say “Take the bloody shot!” with the same amount of gravitas? George Orwell once said something to the effect that by the time he’s fifty, a man has the face he deserves. By the time Judi Dench took over the role of M in Goldeneye at the age of 60, her face had absolutely earned the role. There is a moment early on when you see her in profile after she has just suffered a professional loss — her workplace has just been blown up. There is such a stillness to her in that scene, it demands that we pause for a moment and reflect on M’s career as a spymaster. What horrible choices that job must have entailed, in the name of “the greater good”. Would she have wondered if the choices she made would come back to haunt her someday?
This whole line of thought matters because the theme of this story is more personal than the world domination that Bond villains are best known for. The aforementioned explosion is prefaced with a message to M: Think on your sins. Now this is not an entirely new theme as far as Bond movies are concerned. (In The World is Not Enough, Electra King conveys essentially the same message.) But it has never seemed this personal before. Perhaps this is because the film flirts with some tantalizing possibilities regarding Bond’s origins. And it is this aspect of the story, along with some handsomely shot action sequences (and here we thought Sam Mendes’ preferred sphere of violence was emotional) and strong performances from the entire cast, that keep us engaged during Skyfall’s running time.
What is less commendable, though, is the short shrift given to the plot itself. Watertight plots have never been a hallmark of the Bond franchise in general, but this one seems particularly poor in some respects. A major problem is introduced and made the focus of much of the action up until a certain point, but is then dropped unceremoniously without a credible reason. The villain seems to oscillate between a tormented soul in a melodrama and a f****d-up character in an action movie — what he will do is entirely dependent on what part of his character is dominant at the moment.
Maybe the problem is with expectation. You expect the film to pile contrivance upon contrivance at such a frenetic pace, and wrap it in such spectacular action, that you don’t really care if it will all hold together in the cold light of day. Then again, as I write this review in the cold light of day, I find myself inclined to forgive its faults.
There are a lot of cute touches too, probably befitting the 50th anniversary of Bond’s first appearance on screen. By the end of the film, the usual suspects have been rounded up, so to speak. When James Bond returns as promised (and all indications are that Daniel Craig will do the next one as well), we will enter a universe that looks similar to the one Sean Connery inhabited, complete with M, Q, Aston Martin DB, sly dialogue, martinis shaken not stirred (and these days he does look like he gives a damn) and what not.
It will also be a different world, one where the villains are not always obvious, and the choices made by spies and their masters will have consequences. It will look increasingly like the world we live in. But for the better part of two hours, that world will most likely just be part of the background, while Bond, to quote The Economist, concentrates on booze, bonks and bodies. I think it was Godard who once said that all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun. 007 would agree.