By the time you read this review, ‘Skyfall’ will have broken box office records and minted millions for its studios. Movie critics have practically peed themselves while praising this 23rd installment of the Bond franchise. But audiences are divided.Some are grumbling that there aren’t enough money shots – scenes of things blowing up mixed with scenes of buxom women wearing bikinis that leave nothing to the imagination. ‘Skyfall’ is not for those expecting an overdose of testosterone.
And then there are those, like me, vibrating with the satisfaction of having seen the best Bond film in years because its intelligence is the sexiest thing about it. ‘Skyfall’ is actually a masterful piece of theatre. From stalwarts like Dame Judi Dench and Albert Finney to Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, and Bond himself – Daniel Craig who started his acting career on the stage – these are theatre actors at their best.
Credit that to director Sam Mendes who was well respected in the London theatre scene before he came to be known as the guy who directed ‘American Beauty’. Where ‘American Beauty’ was unorthodox in its structure, Mendes decides to play safe with ‘Skyfall’. It has a standard three-act structure and the story is told in a linear style without unnecessary plot twists, flashbacks, or other gimmicks.
It is bookended by two of the most suspenseful cat-and-mouse action scenes of any Bond film and in between, the movie is like an EKG chart with waves and intervals.The waves – the real action – are the scenes between Bond and M (Judi Dench) or the scene in the museum when Bond meets Q (Ben Whishaw) or when Bond first comes face to face with the villain Silva (Javier Bardem) or when Bond is seducing Severine (French actress Berenice Lim Marlohe) in the Macau casino to extract information that will lead him to Silva. These scenes are like scenes in a play. The camera is still, actors are in close-up giving intense, connected performances, no gimmicks, no flashy stylistic distractions. But every one of these scenes is crackling with tension and humor and suspense. Silva’s entrance – just one example of the huge influence of theatre – is one steady camera shot of him walking slowly toward Bond while delivering a monologue that ends with this memorable line, “We are the two rats left. We can either eat each other (dramatic pause) or eat everyone else.” It is Bardem at his best!
The intervals are the fight scenes that Mendes decides to keep short for the most part. Like premature ejaculation they are over quickly so we can move on to the next wave. Mendes also has little patience for the non-essential. In a pivotal chase scene when Bond is trapped underground, a minute later we see Bond emerging above ground. The movie is not interested in wasting time showing what clever trick he used to crawl his way out. He’s Bond, for God’s sake. By now we all know he is indestructible.
This Bond is also not the Bond of years past when he captured and overpowered his female prey into steamy sex scenes. Instead, this Bond lures you into a sort of modern eroticism. There is a scene between Bond and Miss Moneypenny (a stunning Naomie Harris) where she’s on her knees, in front of a seated, naked Bond, giving him a shave with an old-fashioned razor blade. It is the sexiest non-sexual scene between two people.
But this Bond also springs a sexual surprise, a first to my knowledge and memory of Bond movies. In that scene when he first meets Silva, Bond hints that he may have had a sexual encounter or two with other men. Silva comes on to Bond, big time. When he goads Bond with the line, “There’s a first time for everything” Bond calmly retorts, “What makes you think this is my first time?” Is this Bond’s coming out as bisexual? This thread of the storyline doesn’t really go anywhere but we can hope that the “Bond girl” in the next installment is actually a man.
More troubling is the continuing racial bias in making the villain a person of color. There is absolutely no reason or explanation for why the villain is a Spanish man named Silva and not a white man named Jones. The fact that Silva comes on to Bond implying a bisexual orientation makes his otherness doubly impactful and could give diehard Bond fans a reason to hate the character even more and root for his demise.
I saw ‘Skyfall’ in Mumbai, India where it was released two weeks before its U.S. premiere. It was an interesting experience for two reasons. Indian audiences are accustomed to an intermission half way through every movie. In fact they demand it so they can get their samosas and chai at the concession. The time of the intermission is decided somewhat randomly by the theater. The theater where I saw it called intermission right in the middle of the pivotal Bond-Silva scene! Talk about a buzz kill. The second reason is that many English films – especially the popular action films – can also be seen with dialogue dubbed in Indian languages (‘Skyfall’ can be seen in English and five regional languages of India). I saw the English version and the Hindi dubbed version. I laughed through the latter because the translation was laughable. But, more importantly, the woman dubbing for the character of M had nothing of the timber, specificity, and intentionality of Judi Dench.
Spoiler alert: M dies at the end of ‘Skyfall’. After Daniel Craig, they can recycle Bond with any old hunk du jour but, to me, this franchise without Judi Dench is worse than the sky falling.