- Year: 2012
- Director: Sam Mendes
- Series Rank: #1
- Year Rank: #6
- Oscar Nominations: Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Sound Editing, Original Song
- Nighthawk Nominations: Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Bardem), Supporting Actress (Dench), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing, Makeup, Original Song
- Bond Girl: Naomi Harris (Eve), Bérénice Lim Marlohe (Séverine)
- Bond Villain: Javier Bardem (Raoul Silva), Ola Rapace (Patrice)
- Bond Support: Judi Dench (M), Ben Whishaw (Q), Rory Kinnear (Bill Tanner), Ralph Fiennes (Mallory)
As Skyfall was ending, I had no doubts that I had just sat through the best James Bond ever made. There was no question in my mind. It brought together all the best aspects of the original books (cold, hard Bond who pushes himself to do the job but is wearing himself down with drink), the best aspects of the Craig series (the dead look in his eyes – and I mean that as a compliment to his acting, the relationship with M) and the long-standing aspects of the series, most of which had been absent in the first two Craig films (like Q, played brilliantly by Ben Whishaw with the most screen time for the character since at least Licence to Kill if not ever, or the beautiful Aston-Martin, complete with a special feature that brought forth from M the best line of the film: “Go ahead, then. Eject me.”).
All of that had been brought together with the best creative team to ever work on the series. The Bond films had mostly been made with serviceable directors – men like Guy Hamilton, John Glen or Terence Young were professionals but were never going to be thought of as great directors. But the previous film in the series had brought in Marc Forster, whose Finding Neverland had been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. This time they went with Sam Mendes, who had won Best Picture and Director with his first feature film, American Beauty, and was a highly acclaimed theater director in London before that. Mendes brought in Roger Deakins to do the Cinematography, who has somehow never won an Oscar but has been nominated 12 times. He would be nominated for Skyfall, a film that would earn 5 Oscar nominations in all (as many as the previous 14 Bond films combined) and would win 2 Oscars (as many as all the previous Bond films combined). It would even win the BAFTA for Best British Film over the two films directly above it on my own list, Les Miserables and Anna Karenina. I was even more impressed with it watching it this time – I bumped it from #10 on the year to #6 and it knocks wins away from Argo (Editing), Les Miserables (Sound) and Zero Dark Thirty (Sound Editing). On a purely technical level, it is amazing, but it brings an artistry to all of that that makes it all the more impressive.
But this film is also impressive just in its sheer story-telling. It is a film that is willing to make a coherent argument about both sides of the “shadows” and leaves us with some ambiguity about where the next direction will be pointing. It also is a film filled with heroes who can’t stop committing errors, errors that cost lives and have an impact.
First there is Bond himself. He is not quick enough to keep the all-important list from getting out in the open and he seems to promise rescue to Séverine, the woman who leads him to the instigator of all the film’s evil, but only moves into action after she has been killed. He is not actually cleared for service according to the physical tests, which makes me wonder about those tests given some of the fights that Bond manages to win after he fails those tests.
Next there is M. Her relationship with Bond continues to grow and she will literally place her life in his hands, although she is worried enough at the start that she orders another agent to take a shot that will end up taking down Bond. M oversees one disaster after another in this film (the loss of the list, the explosion at MI-6, the escape) and we continue to believe in her, partially because Dench, who has been great ever since she got the role, is given much more to work with here and she’s simply amazing. She was nominated for both the BAFTA and the BFCA and she deserved them both.
There is new agent, Eve, who accompanies Bond at a few different points. We first meet her doing some amazing driving, but we also quickly see her failure moment – when ordered to take the shot, it’s Bond she ends up hitting and that’s why the list gets out into the open. She makes up for it later, by assisting Bond in Macao and by assisting in the prevention of the scheme in the hearing. She’s played by Naomi Harris and she’s one of the best Bond girls for a variety of reasons – even if she doesn’t get the shot right, she’s done a hell of a job driving, she helps out considerably in Macao, she’s bloody gorgeous, she gives the best performance as a Bond girl outside of Eva Green and she even gets some great banter in with Bond (“Something to do with killing 007.” “Well, you gave it your best shot.” “That was hardly my best shot.” “I’m not sure I could survive your best.” “I doubt you’ll get the chance.”).
There are some great actors in supporting roles. The first is Rory Kinnear, who I already raved about in my Quantum of Solace review, and who gets some very good moments here (you could even rack him up on the failure list, as he doesn’t get M out of the hearing in time). The next is Ralph Fiennes, as the government official who is forcing M out, helping to make the argument that things need to change, but also throwing her at least a little bone at the hearing. I had to point out Kinnear’s work, but Fiennes has now been one of the best actors of his generation for over 20 years, and if he’s only been Oscar nominated twice that’s their failing. There is even Albert Finney, showing up for the last stretch of the film as the man who helped raise Bond, and he also has a failure with huge implications (he uses his torch and is spotted by Silva). There is even Helen McCrory, yet another Bond person who will go on to Penny Dreadful.
There is also the return of Q, this time in the form of Ben Whishaw. Every time he pops up in a film I mention that he might kill you for your scent, and if you don’t get that joke, then there’s definitely a movie you need to go see. Whishaw is a fascinating actor and he makes for a great Q, smiling at Bond’s reluctance to trust such a young quartermaster (“What did you expect? An exploding pen?” he quips at Bond) and using digital technology to help Bond out in the field. Even he is not immune from mistakes though, and it’s his presumption that he can take on Silva’s tech abilities that actually lead to Silva’s escape. All of these failures serve to make the heroes far more human and it makes the story far more interesting as a whole.
I keep mentioning Silva. Silva is the villain, of course. The best villain in Bond history. There’s a variety of things that make him such a great Bond villain. The first is his introduction, a long shot as he descends in an elevator, and then slowly walks towards Bond, with an anecdote about how they are the two rats who have learned now to only eat each other. The next is the way he can jump from playful (“There’s always a first time,” he tells Bond, caressing Bond’s leg. “What makes you think this is my first time?” Bond replies, a line we never could have believed from any earlier Bond. “Oh, Mr. Bond,” Silva says with a smile) to horrifying (the look on his face when he takes out his prosthesis and explains what the cyanide pill that didn’t kill him did do to him) to angry (the hearing scene) to somewhat mortified (the pained look in his eyes when he realizes M has been hurt, and not by him). They all work so well because Javier Bardem is a truly great actor (3 Oscar noms, including a win) and he knows how to bring just the right inflections to every line (“What have they done to you?” he asks M and it’s fascinating and horrifying). In my mind, there is no one even close to him as a Bond villain.
All of this works together so well because of the script. It is strong, whether it is developing the ongoing saga of Bond himself (the film hints that some of the other films in the series might have taken place between the last film and this one and gives us some background on Bond for the first time), whether it gives us good character moments (Bond, looking at the hideous British bulldog on M’s desk says “The whole office goes up in smoke and that bloody thing survives.” Her response: “Your interior decorating tips have always been appreciated, 007.”) or nice quiet moments between the action (we see Q and Tanner, with a beer in hand, staring at the screen, planning on how to lead Silva to Bond’s trap and Mallory walks in – we think it will be a problem until Mallory explains what they are doing and approves. “What if the PM finds out?” Q asks. “Then we’re all buggered,” Mallory replies. “Carry on.”). This film is a great film on every level and easily moves to the top of the Bond list, and that’s where it was sitting as the final couple of scenes begin, with Bond standing there, with a great shot overlooking London.
Then comes the moment that was so amazing and fantastic for me as a Bond fan. When Bond and Eve have their little moment together, they walk down into the office, the office we know so well, and she tells him her name. This was a secret the filmmakers hid well and I was not expecting it in the slightest when she replies “Eve. Eve Moneypenny.” Then we meet the new M, and hell, if Judi Dench is going to be gone, then at least she’s being replaced by Ralph Fiennes. When Veronica saw Skyfall the first time, she didn’t know the full history of Bond, didn’t realize what a big moment that was and why I was screaming “Yes, yes, yes.” once we realize who Naomi Harris really is. She understands now.
A little add-on: The scene in the casino made Veronica and I wonder if those were Komodo dragons (answer: yes). So, I looked them up on Wikipedia. If you want to read something that is incredibly fascinating (as well as completely disgusting), read the diet section here. I hope you will agree with me that Malodorous Mucus would be a fantastic name for a punk band.