I reviewed Skyfall over at Badmouth. I like Daniel Craig as Bond, but this movie continued an interesting trend in his movies that presents a rather peculiar writing challenge. Screenwriting 101 these days will tell you that everything has to be personal. It’s no longer enough that Bond is just a guy who saves the world. We have to get at the man inside the superman. Trouble is, the filmmakers decide to focus on Bond’s personality without noticing that he doesn’t quite have one.
Heartbreak is his Krypton
In Casino Royale, Craig doesn’t really become James Bond until the end of the film. He only earns his double-0 status in the movie’s opening, and we explicitly don’t get the “Bond, James Bond,” line and the classic theme music until the end, which is also when he shows up in a sharp suit to kill the villain behind the villain. He doesn’t care about how drinks are made, either–we’re constantly shown that this man lacks the familiar Bond qualities. What changes him? What turns a government agent into “Bond, James Bond”? He falls in love with Vesper Lynd (and plans to quit MI6), gets his heart broken. We’re told that Bond is an orphan, and it’s when he also loses hope of any future attachments that he becomes the implacable, unflappable master spy he’s destined to be.
Silence is his Fortress of Solitude
Quantum of Solace continues right where the origin story leaves off, but it’s only in the end, and through the slimmest of reveals, that we understand the degree to which revenge, and inner pain, drove Bond’s continued pursuit of the Quantum organization that blackmailed Vesper, used her against him, and led her ultimately to her death. But Bond never speaks of his feelings, and almost no one in the film knows to ask him about them.
That Bond never reveals his inner self is entirely in keeping with the nature of his career and the kind of man who’d do the work, and is in line with themes and portrayals regarding SIS special-ops killer (all of Le Carre’s characters despised the “scalphunters” as thugs, and the obscure, brilliant “Sandbaggers” is very much about the toll that serving in, and running, such a special unit exacts). But past Bond films simply ignored the idea that there was a human being inside the tuxedo, other than the Lazenbee film, where he’s wedded and widowed. Trying to go deeper into the character while making the character more of a cipher than ever is such a weird strategy I’m assuming the filmmakers didn’t notice. (There’s so much else in the Skyfall script they didn’t manage to keep track of, I can believe it.)
Another difference in Skyfall: Bond has no real friends. Fellow agent Eve works some missions with him, and they have a (tastefully implied, off-screen) roll in the hay, but she never seems to be a friend, confidant or equal in Bond’s eyes. Compare her not to Vesper, who became all those things, but to Felix Leiter and that shifty French guy played by Giancarlo Giannini. Those guys were friends. In this movie, we focus on M as surrogate mom, but James is even more cut off from humanity than in the preceding two installments.
England is his Lois Lane
Running out of Superman metaphors here. So in Skyfall, we learn, what? That the orphan Bond had parents once? That he never returned to his childhood home on a Scottish moor, which is essentially Wayne Manor relocated to the moon. Albert Finney is on hand as the last link to Bond’s childhood, but nothing is done with his character, no insight is given into how the loss of Bond’s parents changed the young James. We can infer that he shut down emotionally, but we inferred that two movies ago.
Also implicit in the film is that love of country has replaced love of anything else, including himself. Javier Bardem is presented as a metaphorical brother to Bond, similar in every way, down to feeling betrayed by M and MI6. But where this made Bardem lash out at the spy organization, Daniel Craig remains loyal. This implies a deep loyalty, a deep love, that is never explained or explored, it’s just there, in a stoic, manly way. Which, again, would be fine in this sort of film, but they’re making such efforts to scratch beneath the surface of Bond that you’d expect them to write something under the surface, you know?
Man of Steel, Woman of No Real Importance
An added consequence of the focus on Bond’s brooding, damaged intensity–of spending more time noticing that there’s no one in there–is that it makes things worse for the women around him. The Bond films (and novels) have long been criticized for their treatment of women. I can defend the novels as products of their time, and as having a stronger commitment to the world view of a man like Fleming’s Bond would have been, but the more recent films have sometimes made great strides in modernizing the handling of Bond’s female colleagues and conquests. Unfortunately, Skyfall takes a giant step backward.
Casino Royale: Bond first sleeps with Solange, and she gets killed in consequence. The sex scene reveals that Bond prefers married women, as a way of avoiding attachment, so the character serves a plot purpose (Bond gains information) and a character purpose (we learn something about James). Then, of course, Vesper enters as his equal and earns his love–the best-written Bond woman ever.
Quantum of Solace: Bond seduces MI6 field operative Gemma Arterton for a mutually fun romp, but the damaged and revenge-driven Camille does not bed him. The two bond (sorry) not over sex appeal but over grief. She’s a strong character with her own motivations, drives much of the film, and serves the audience as an emotional surrogate for the entirely internalized Bond. Look at the picture from the poster–they walk as equals, grim not sexy, dirty not poised, serious not playful. Olga Kurylenko made Camille probably my favorite Bond girl. (She’d be tied with Michelle Yeoh, but I liked Yeoh’s character more for the movie in my head than for what was put on the screen. And don’t make me admit to Halle Berry.)
Skyfall: My friend Andy put it best: “There were three women in the film with key roles. One was a person of authority and she was killed. One was a prostitute/sex slave and she was killed. One was a competent field agent and she became a secretary. Not very good odds for the women in this film.”
Now, I’d argue that the film focuses on Judi Dench to a degree that makes her character’s ultimate fate dramatically acceptable–she’s not a casualty of filmmaker indifference. That fate falls to Berenice Marlohe’s Severine. Her character is a frightened sex slave who provides only cursory plot information and a not particularly clever way for Bond to find the villain’s lair. She is killed quickly, pointlessly, with no tension or style in the storytelling, and when her murder also ruins a glass of fine scotch, Bond tells the villain, “It’s a waste of good whisky.” Sure, it’s bravado–Bond would never show feelings if he had any–but it all combines to be sickening, and you’d think the filmmakers would’ve known better.
Not only should the scene have been rewritten, but Severine’s entire character and role in the film should have been changed to at least approach the contributions of Camille and Vesper. Or, if that didn’t work, eliminate the role entirely. The film is all but contemptuous of the usual Bond trappings, so jettisoning the elegant babe wouldn’t have been a stretch.
Man of Tomorrow
Where does the series go from here? Bond’s relationships within MI6 are sufficiently reset that the next film could provide a less introspective adventure. Craig’s predecessor, Pierce Brosnan, gave us a Bond who was two-thirds fun and one-third hard-edged. Maybe next go-around could give us a Bond who’s two-thirds hard edge, one-third fun?
If the filmmakers wanted to continue the emotional journey of Craig’s Bond, which is one of repeated loss without healing, they’d let him find another woman to fall in love with, and where Casino Royale told us that James Bond must lose love to become a man, we’d see he must also find love to finally triumph. Then, probably, that woman would need to die, too, to preserve Bond’s status quo, but if the death left him healed, with a kind of strength that Vesper’s loss didn’t, we’d get a better Bond, a better “Bond girl,” and a film with real personal impact rather than more empty pretense.
Or, y’know, they could just make a James Bond movie and have him travel to exotic locales to kick the ass of some crazed terrorist billionaire because that’s what James Bond does. I’d buy a ticket to that.
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