Published Date 29/12/12 00:00
The latest 007 adventure “Skyfall” has been widely praised by reviewers, and welcomed by fans as a return to the series' core values. For me, though, it was probably the divergence from those values that made me so keen on the much criticised previous outing “Quantum of Solace”. But “Skyfall” goes a lot further than a mere return to the conservative spirit of the 50-year-old series. Any mistaken idea that Berkshire-born director Sam Mendes is a typical London theatrical liberal is decisively squashed by this deeply reactionary movie. Mendes' British stage productions are normally described as “dark”. I haven't seen them, but I'm guessing they belong to a very contemporary zeitgeist of paranoiac grimness, with very little critical ideology at all. Incidentally, I have never been able to understand the ecstatic reception given to Mendes' first Hollywood movie “American Beauty” (1999), a mild and inconsequential drama of suburban manners.
As for the half-century-old Bond, we can make a brief retrospective by looking at 007's enemies. In the Sean Connery / Roger Moore age, the real, drab, if sinister, Cold War adversary from the KGB is substituted by much more entertaining Pacific-island-owning, cat-stroking megalomaniacs bent on world domination. Mike Myers' Austin Powers derives much of its hilarity from being only a small step further down the road of caricature. Only when the Soviet Union was finished could communists actually appear. The Russian Futurist design of Pierce Brosnan's first film “Goldeneye” (1995) is one of its more appealing features. Communist-capitalist rapprochement even became possible in “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997). Michelle Yeoh's agent Wai Lin and Pierce Brosnan provide a more sexy version of Mao Tse-Tung and Richard Nixon's meeting of more than 20 years earlier. “Who said Communists have no sense of fun?” quips Bond, yoking Yeoh's character to the same stereotype as Garbo's Ninotchka of 70 years before. Coming back to villains, it was a very pleasing departure to see the colourlessness of Mathieu Amalric's Dominic Greene in “Quantum of Solace”. In the only left-wing film of the series, the villainy here lies not in a crazed individual, but in an impersonal corporation which wants to steal Bolivia's water supply. This is clearly a reference to real events, the water privatisation tried at the behest of the World Bank in the city of Cochabamba in 2000, heroically overturned by mass protest. These events were themselves recently made into a film, “Even the Rain” (2010). “Quantum of Solace” is “Even the Rain” with sex and stunts, and without of course the actions of the people.
By contrast, the fatal political weakness at the heart of Thomas Paul Anderson's “There Will Be Blood” (2007) is the grand guignol villainy of Daniel Day-Lewis' oil prospector central character. Watching the film, I was more curious about the other oil executives he encounters at one point in a restaurant: a group of normal, family men, who are presumably exploiting both people and natural resources in ways similar to Day-Lewis' character. This depiction of wrong-doing, that it is the act of twisted individuals rather than a function of the system, dogs many otherwise political films. Good examples are the treatment of Nazis in many post-war dramas. For instance, in both Bunuel's “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964) and Bertolucci's “1900” (1976), the fascist character is not a dispassionate bureaucrat sending Jews to the camps, but a child rapist and killer. But of course if Nazism had been able only to rely on the participation of people like Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the Holocaust could never have happened. This is one of the great strengths of Pontecorvo's “Battle of Algiers” (1966). Ruthless, torturing paratroop colonel Mathieu is so admirably objective, turning French journalists' questions back on them: “The question is: should France be in Algeria?” If it should, then he needs to torture. If not, not. There is no way to have both human rights and the empire, as pro-war liberals often try to maintain.
The enemy in “Skyfall” is Javier Bardem's turncoat MI6 agent, a computer geek. Chillingly, the substituted enemy here is neither the KGB nor Osama Bin Laden, but Julian Assange and the masked youths of Anonymous. “Skyfall” has therefore taken an exceptionally reactionary turn to focus on the “enemy within”.
Mendes' “dark” world is very much in evidence, showing a menacing London not far from the dystopia of “V for Vendetta”. So much is this the case that I was impelled to ask, what is MI6 protecting exactly? Presumably the 1%, target of the Occupy movement and those same masked Anonymous youths. Can I have been the only viewer who was not upset to see MI6' notorious ziggurat on the Thames blown to bits?
Judi Dench's role as M has also become darker. Since her first appearance in 1995, she has been Jocasta, mother to Bond's Oedipus. In his “The Life of Ian Fleming”, John Pearson suggests that M may even be based on Fleming's own mother. In “Skyfall” she is more the child-murdering Medea, or Woody Allen's mother in “Love and Death”, ever prepared to sacrifice him for the good of the nation.
Apart from Dench's character, “Skyfall” is incredibly negative in its portrayal of women.
OK, I know that being shocked by James Bond's sexism is like being surprised by the Pope's religion, but here once again Mendes has given the standard Bond line a further twist to the right. There are a number of progressive currents running through the 007 canon. There are consequently choices that producers and directors can make. One of the attractive aspects of “Quantum of Solace” was the feistiness of Gemma Arterton's Bond girl. As such, in this world of sick, sorry, playful male fantasy, she must of course be killed, but that only gives her the same fate as every mere sex doll he meets. In “Skyfall”, though, we have Naomi Harris' hapless Eve Moneypenny, who, having accidentally nearly killed Bond, at the end of the film retires to a woman's “proper place” as secretary.
For the first time, in “Skyfall” we see Bond's social origins, as a member of the presumably English landed gentry in Scotland. These very “1%” roots are consistent with the political world of the rest of the film. Recent research on happiness in a deeply divided society suggests that the 1% may be as miserable and unfulfilled as the 99% in this state of affairs. Bond's strangely unmoving childhood trauma, and his consequent shallow and callous hedonism, make him the perfect agent to protect this grim world, in which he may be sacrificed at any moment. In this world individual human beings count for nothing. The preservation of the system is all.