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*****Warning: Spoilers throughout. This article is MADE of Spoilers******
Bond: Everybody needs a hobby.
Silva: So what’s yours?
James Bond, famously antipathetic towards bureaucrats, nearly succumbed to the entropy of MGM’s financial troubles, and Skyfall was in the freezer for two years until it emerged from the shadow of bankruptcy. Quite how the studio behind cinema’s second biggest golden goose could find itself collecting coupons from magazines is entirely beyond me. What I do know is that the Commander’s latest expedition of self-loathing and violence is a spectacular success. It is that rare thing- a reinvention that is actually inventive; and a homage to its serial identity, that doesn’t wallow in its own history like Miss Havisham sadly thumbing through her scrapbooks.
When Fleming wrote the Bond books, international travel was still impossibly glamorous and expensive. They were outlandish windows into overseas Narnias, when planes were still the luxury liners of the skies. Today, stag parties bounce back from Iceland in a weekend, and air travel is something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Skyfall nods towards this franchise default with an immaculately framed middle act in Macau and the Chinese coast, and a opening dash across the rooftops of Istanbul that had me hoping he would run into Liam Neeson, pursuing his family’s tormentors like a grizzled Celtic Nemesis. Presumably someone in the Turkish Tourist Board had a rocket up his ass a few years ago, because they brought in two tent poles for us to chew on as we consider our holidays for Summer 2013.
|‘Is that Tom Ford?’|
Longevity in any field necessitates reinvention: see Madonna for details. Bond’s unique depiction of gender politics, international détente, and a thousand other media theses are time-capsules of their eras. Each Bond has to be a reboot; each film is a tribute to the vices and virtues of the release date. And, as things change, so too does the Commander. But as many philosophers have considered; if something changes, is it still the same thing it was before? In other words, does it have an identity?
I am not the person I was twenty years ago; every cell in me has been reconstituted from newer atoms, shepherded by the chemistry of ingestion, digestion and excretion. I look different. Am I the same man? Football teams display this turmoil; does a life long Arsenal fan support the same team now as his father forty years before him? Can you step in the same river twice? Can you do it even once? As in Zen Buddhism, so in the Tao of Bond. Who is he now?
The writers confront this directly in Skyfall; the scaffold theme is rebirth, both as a franchise, and as a character. We’ve seen this done before- as the USSR disintegrated, Bond films often directly asked this question: ‘You’re a relic of the Cold War, 007’ etc. In Skyfall, it isn’t merely an afterthought (with the Russians replaced by omni-ethnic terrorists or shadowy conglomerates); it’s the central motif. Bond is slotted by a witless colleague at the start, and topples to his apparent death, although this turns out to be no more fatal than Holmes toppling from the Reichenbach Falls. Possibly such ends merely invigorate fictional superheroes.
Evoking Abrahamic motifs of baptism and rebirth and Greek allusions towards rivers and the afterlife, Bond emerges from the water, harrowed and scourged. In London he is missing, presumed dead; M writes his obituary for The Times and his flat in the King’s Road is sold. Back in Greece, the resurrected Bond recuperates by reverting to his factory settings: promiscuous sex, drinking down to his soul, and tempting death. Simultaneously, one shouldn’t wonder. This is as far from Roger Moore’s Chelsea fop as can be imagined. This is a Bond more savage, nihilistic and solipsistic than even Connery’s muscular hit man and serial rake.Then: a bell rings that draws him back to the worn groove of meaning that motivated his previous incarnation: danger in England.
|Bond ‘getting better.’|
M, too, is teetering on the abyss. Embarrassed by her department’s security failures, she is surrounded by the forces of change, hungry for her chair. Her ministerial line manager (Ralph Fiennes) draws a picture of her resignation and retirement. In a manner unimaginable for the M of Goldfinger, she is summoned to an open committee grilling, in scenes reminiscent of the Leveson crucible. Frustrated by the red tape, she is chastened by the Minister who reminds her, ‘This is a democracy; we are accountable to the people we are responsible for protecting.’ This is not a message that finds much purchase in the high stakes, damn-your-eyes world of men like Bond, but it is an important one, and the tension is compelling.
The antagonist reinforces the theme of rebirth; an agent from a previous decade, and Bond’s predecessor for M’s favour, he embodies a different kind of reinvention; his plan is simply an enormous, exhaustive revenge against his former department mentor, whom he perceives as having abandoned him.
Abandoned: now that’s an interesting lens to observe the Bond story. Orphaned at 11, Bond is an avatar of rootlessness. ‘That’s what happens to unmarried agents with no family,’ says M to Bond, having just told him his flat has been sold posthumously. Later, she tells him, ‘Orphans- they make the best agents,’ and Bond can only say nothing by way of agreement. Part of the utility of this isolation is to play to the themes that make Bond so attractive as a character: irresponsibility, the perfectly free individual, unworried by the tethers and ballast of kin. He can shoot, couple and quaff with abandon, with no one to whom he has to defer or justify himself. Even his department nomenclature, ’00’ indicates the libertarian fantasy of exemption from the most basic of society’s prohibitions- killing.
But flip the lens, and the privations of this existence are obvious: Aristotle said that any man who lived without society was either a God or a Monster, and Bond is a fascinating blend of both. Loneliness is the counterpoint to privacy; and carelessness results in having no one who cares for you in return. Intemperance of alcoholic appetite is the path to addiction; aggressive promiscuity fails to satisfy the itch that inspires it, and leads to loathing. Even M, apparently his closest colleague, sends him to his death with barely a heartbeat of hesitation; not once, but repeatedly.
In the third, careful act of Skyfall, Bond grabs M in an attempt to steal ground on Javier Bardem’s perfectly pitched villain, takes her home to Scotland (a hastily appended addition by Fleming to Bond’s pseudo history after Connery absorbed the role so completely in Dr No) but to his family home in Glencoe: Skyfall. That he does so in the original Aston Martin from Goldfinger is just another beat in the great plan driving the narrative: Bond is going back to his roots, to be reborn. Mendes provides one of cinema’s greatest indulgent shivers of joy when the car is revealed, and John Barry’s surf-rock fanfare raises the score from background mood music to palpable protagonist. Moe than just a nerd’s nod, it’s also the most appropriate vehicle Bond could have chosen; going back to where it started, in his most emblematic wheels, to be reborn.
The moment when M asks Bond ‘Is this where you grew up?’, and he barely answers her, sweeping his gaze across the foggy, heroic valley of Glencoe, is poignant. Bond could never have been born somewhere petty or common; he was forged somewhere as mythical and epic as himself. But even here, we haven’t reached the heart of Bond’s roots, and we are led back in time to nearly- nearly– the core of Bond: Skyfall Manor itself (surprisingly not an audacious macguffin of pseudo-Armageddon technology as the film’s titles usually are, but the family pile).
A knacker’s yard of a house/ castle, it hides, almost like a ghost, Kincade, the family gamekeeper, and seemingly the last link between Bond and his past. It’s interesting: we can barely visualise him as a traumatised boy, and we can see the walking scar tissue he becomes in the films, but it is impossible to imagine Bond as anything other than his invincible adult incarnation, reminiscent of the way that the gospels skim almost entirely over the figure of Christ, fast forwarding from his birth to the adult ministry via a pitstop at the Temple. Kincade, we find out, taught Bond (described in the novels as the best shot in the branch) to use a shotgun. He also describes to M how Bond, when informed by Kincaid of his parents’ death in an avalanche, hid in the Priest’s Tunnel. ‘And when he emerged again, he was a man.’ Kincaid is the witness, if not the midwife, to Bond’s first regeneration. It’s appropriate- maybe essential- that he’s present for the second.
So: we have a surrogate father in Kincaid (whom Bond now amazes, and therefore surpasses in marksmanship), and a surrogate mother (albeit a pragmatic one) in M. ‘Mommy wass ferrry bad,’ Bardem hams earlier in the film. ‘You’ve got a soft spot for Bond, and it’s clouding your judgement,’ the former Minister for Magic, Fiennes, chides her. Clearly M stands for more than just Emma.
Fans of rebirth and resurrection metaphors aren’t disappointed. Bond’s home is driven to rubble by incendiaries, but tellingly he finishes the job himself with the tools from his past: gas cannisters and sticks of dynamite, channeling the A-Team, perhaps. Backed into a rathole, with no weapons, facing massively superior odds, Bond upgrades into the Nietzschean lion that resists all defeat. He blows up his past, retreating into the Priest’s Hole once again to reincarnate. First fire, then ice: moments after he emerges, he- again, deliberately- throws himself back into water for a second time in the frozen loch, where he re-emerges in full third act unstoppability. What is left after the cremation and baptism is Bond, distilled to the purest form. Nothing weak or mean or petty remains.
And finally, in the chapel, the last pangs of the birth: M succumbs to blood loss and dies, evoking a rare tear from Bond. Is it significant that the father figure remains? Is Bond so closely aligned to masculinity that only the male warrior remains, the one who taught him to shoot? Perhaps. It’s an interesting resolution in the end: Bardem attempts to kill M and simultaneously commit suicide with the same bullet, but Bond stops him with his father’s knife. M dies anyway, and we obtain the same results as the one Bardem was seeking. Perhaps the only significant difference is that one scenario was done to the protagonists, and one was chosen by them. Both paths led to death in the chapel, but one is seen somehow as victory and one defeat. Moral ambiguity has always been Bond’s world.
And in the end, where have we come? Full cycle, it seems. Fifty years of Bond marked by burning down the family home until nothing is left but the minimum: Bond, cold, cruel and therefore powerful as before, Monneypenny back in admin (so much for liberation, it seems, but then misogyny has always been in the DNA of a man who feeds on the warmth of others) and a man back in M’s seat. Westminster has always been a boy’s club, despite recent innovation; perhaps Bond’s environment simply reflects this.
And finally a word about the year of Skyfall: a year in which a tired, recession-battered UK surprised itself by remembering that it can also celebrate and succeed. The old relationships- Ruler of Waves, Favourite Auntie of America- no longer succour. Acts of Union grow brittle, and 60 million people wonder what we have in common with each other when our metropolises ripple with languages and values. If ever a nation needed a reinvention, to burn down the rotten wood of a leaden heritage, it’s us. The Olympics were a tiny example of how this might be achieved; not by pretending to be better than anyone else, but by having the self-respect and integrity to be excellent in ourselves, and never mind if we led the board any more. Send a gun ship to burn down the timidity and narcissism of uncertainty, of comparing ourselves to the world; what remains might be worth something.
It’s being described as the best Bond film by some. It may well be. It’s certainly the best Bond film now.
The director of Bond 24 has a hard job ahead.
*Note: This was meant to be a blog on the education of Bond. It ended up as this. I blame half-term fever.