Saturday, October 27, 2012

We've been expecting you - Skyfall reviewed

I shouldn't have been, at my age, but I was giddy. Like a child on Christmas morning. I was even queuing an hour before kickoff, but then when I saw what passes for queuing in Paris, I was wise to be early.

A packed cinema served to remind, if a reminder was needed, that this wasn't just an opening night screening but part of a global event involving a cinema marque as magnetic, as universally understood, and as powerful as any of the brands who pay handsomely to have their wares displayed within.

11 months since a London press conference confirmed the production of 'Bond 23', I found myself in an aggressive scrum anxiously squeezing through the single set of doors of a Champs-Élysées auditorium for, what is appropriately named in French, a séance of Skyfall.

In principle, a 23rd of anything doesn't sound good. 23rd helping of tiramisu? 23rd series of Celebrity Big Brother? Now That's What I Call Music 23? You wouldn't willingly stand in line to watch a 23rd outing of Police Academy or the Twilight franchises, none of which should ever be allowed out of the single digits.

Bond has, however, proven the exception to the rule, quite rightly reaching 23 instalments in half a century by doing 'Bond' better than anyone or anything else, on average earning more than $500 million a film. Something it is still doing after 50 years.

Bond has seen off the imitations like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Matt Helm, and spoofs like Get SmartAustin Powers and Johnny English. While no imitations, the first three adaptations of Len Deighton's Harry Palmer novels, starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, provided an antidote to Bond, while Jason Bourne has, since, come along to inform Bond how he should appear in the post-9/11 age.

Bond has proven indestructible, onscreen and off. Not even the MGM studio's serious financial troubles proved fatal. But when 'Bond 23' was announced just 51 weeks ago, the talk was of what a Bond directed by a 'serious' actors' director like Sam Mendes would end up like. The suggestion was that it could be a dour, thesp-fest, restrained by both budget limitations and a director not known for action on the scale (both in terms of expectation and execution) of 007.

When producers later announced the title, Skyfall, there was further consternation, mixed with curiosity. If the film stank, critics and headline writers would be gifted variations on "Awfull". And with a cast bringing Daniel Craig and Dame Judi Dench together with Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, and the ever-so slight disappointment of Quantum Of Solace in the not-too distant past, a lot would be resting on Mendes' shoulders. An awful lot.

Quantum was, scriptwise, a blip. But despite its lack of narrative, and an over-reliance on the Vesper Lynd revenge arc, it was still a good Bond, and a great, modern spy thriller (and there are others in the series that you could aim harsher criticism at - Die Another Day comes straight to mind...).

So, Skyfall. It is good. Exceptionally good. It has been talked of as the best yet. Maybe. But it is very good. In fact, the last time I came out of a cinema that exhilarated I'd just seen Christian Bale and Heath Ledger pitted against each other in The Dark Knight. Yes, that good.

Without revealing anything you haven't read already, there is so much to admire in this film. Stuff that just puts a smile on your face in near-incredulity at moments you've just seen. Firstly, Skyfall feels like a new kind of Bond film, and that has everything to do with Mendes.

'New' usually unnerves Bond fans - remember when the idea of a blond Bond had the fanboys up in arms? The Daniel Craig era has been notably different from its predecessors - mostly bereft of gadgets and an avoidance of epic final battle scenes in hollowed-out volcanos and submarine-swallowing oil tankers.

Skyfall seems scaled down: the "exotic" locations are still there - like Istanbul and Shanghai  - but  plot-pivotal scenes in Scotland and, for probably the first time in 50 years, a London-centricity, the story has more to do with Bond and M's respective histories than carousing gratuitously from destination to destination.

There is, as a result, a strong parallel to The Bourne Ultimatum, and not just the appearance of Albert Finney. Amid the action, Skyfall takes us into M and Bond's past, with ultra-camp villain Javier Bardem as the tour's brilliant guide. It's tempting to compare his Silva to Heath Ledger's Joker, though for pure psychopathic terror, the latter would win on points.

Mendes has a wonderful sense of photography. His Road To Perdition won an Oscar for its cinematography, and it is noticeable how rich the imagery in Skyfall is, using colour, light and artistic composition in a manner you don't expect in an action movie. Scenes in Shanghai, for example, reminded me of Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights. Not the normal reference point for some camp old spy dust-up.

But, don't worry. This is still a Bond film. The opening scene is breathtaking, probably the best Bond opening scene ever. At its end, as the screen fades into the title sequence and Adele's dreary theme song (the only real disappointment of the film), I actually felt that I'd just seen an entire film in its own right. I could understand how this scene took two months to shoot in Istanbul. It is simply stunning.

There was something oddly theatre-like about Skyfall, in so far as you felt you were watching a series of filmed acts from a play, such was the temptation to applaud certain scenes at their conclusion. Indeed, the appearance of Bond's Aston Martin DB5 prompted spontaneous applause from my fellow Parisian patrons. A lovely moment.

Skyfall fulfills every expectation. Daniel Craig has warmed into the Bond role nicely. This his third. Remember Connery in Goldfinger. While Craig will never have Connery's balance of charm and brawn, but he is still miles above most of the other Bond actors, and Skyfall

"Men want to be him, women want to be with him" runs the usual journalistic cliche. Craig displays more vulnerability than any previous Bond but, that aside, the formula has changed all that much. The haircuts, tailoring, cars and budgets may have changed over the last 50 years, but fundamentally James Bond on screen is still the same character who first appeared two weeks before the Cuban missile crisis  erupted.

Around him, the supporting cast has been allowed to evolve. Dame Judi Dench continues to play M with stern dryness befitting of the character's seniority, though the humour between M and Bond is cleverer by far than in the days of Bernard Lee and the three Bonds who served under him (Connery, Lazenby and Moore).

Indeed, the jokes in Skyfall are, rather than the sometime crass affairs of Bonds past, delightfully weighted. Encounters between Bond and Q have always been the main source of laughs, and in Skyfall, the first meeting between Craig and his Q (Ben Whishaw) is superbly unforced, like a number of knowing gags throughout the entire film, suitably self-depreciating in the manner we Brits revel in.

When you audit Skyfall it checks more or less all Bond boxes. There are gadgets, there are girls (the excellent Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe returning 007 to the traditionally un-PC habits of being somewhat discarding of his conquests) and there is villainy and suspense. Listed like that, I know, could be the formulaic description of any action franchise produced to order by studio marketing executives.

Bond may be like be a simple, anyone-can-do-it recipe - like Spaghetti Bolognese (onions, garlic, celery, carrots minced beef, can of tomatoes, oregano, salt and pepper served over spaghetti), but there is finesse in the cooking process that makes a Terence Young Bond subtly different from a John Glen Bond. This Sam Mendes Bond is different once again. And it is utterly, utterly brilliant. And worth queuing up for a second time. At the very least.


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