The longish straight nose ran down to a short upper lip below which was a wide and finely drawn but cruel mouth. The line of jaw was straight and firm. A section of dark suit, white shirt and black knitted tie completed the picture.
– From Russia With Love, by Ian Fleming
MI6 agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) enters a corridor, only his silhouette visible. He draws his Walther PPK as the camera operator pulls focus on Mr. Craig’s face with narrow depth of field. And a thought occurs to me: Directors have come and gone in the franchise, now in its fiftieth year, but each had the presence of mind to drop you immediately into the action—like a Mamet film, with inferior dialogue (until now).
In the opening shot of Skyfall, Roger Deakins’ (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Shawshank Redemption) cinematography has established a very distinct visual language that doesn’t exist in Bond films prior. Preferring formal composition to tired dutch angles, when appropriate he combines locked shots, tracking shots, and SteadiCam. I counted only one overt use of the dreaded handheld, a.k.a. “Shaky Cam”, but it was appropriate for the scene. Elevators and towering skyscrapers are a recurring theme, allowing him to work the vertical space. Finally, shifting focal lengths, depths of field and movement into the frame utilize the visual space to its fullest potential.
There are several moments where he takes a cue from Jean Lepine’s work in Altman’s The Player, as well as other films. Mr. Deakins frequently connects you first to the sound of the actor who is either out of frame or out of focus and then brings the actor to the front of the frame, slowly joining the disembodied sound with the image.
This use of three dimensional space was a key technique of Gregg Toland, the cinematographer on Citizen Kane, to maximize the Academy (1.37:1 frame aspect) format at the time. Here Mr. Deakins does something remarkable by using center wide, center medium and center close-up one-shots in an otherwise open space to create a sense of claustrophobia or impending doom. This is most evident during the introduction of the film’s main villain, Silva (Javier Bardem): It’s an excellent suspense building scene… I found myself counting the seconds that Mr. Bardem very carefully took walking in small steps from the back to the front of the frame. It builds a hell of a lot of tension, and you don’t know what he’s going to do next. He comes at Bond like a shark, punctuated a few moments later by a salacious line which I won’t spoil.
The dialogues, Skyfall’s second gift to you, are helped along immensely by screenwriter John Logan (Any Given Sunday, Hugo, Coriolanus) who accompanies Neal Purvis and Robert Wade—the writing team who penned the previous four Bond outings. One commenter on IMDb astutely opined that Mr. Bardem’s introductory monologue seemed stilted. However, I think that was the intended effect, and good use of his acting chops. In Michael Mann’s Collateral, he casually relates a very dark story about Pedro el Negro (Black Peter) to Max (Jamie Foxx). This gives the viewer the sense that he’s probably told the story before, and the casual yet teleprompter-like delivery intimates a disconnect between the villain and the emotional intensity of the story he’s telling—a psychological mechanism also used in the exchanges between Agent Starling and Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
The best villains possess a character flaw with which the audience can identify. In most Bond movies, some kind of physical or psychological disfigurement is involved. In Raoul Silva, however, the nature of the villain’s disfigurement not only garners sympathy for him, but simultaneously breeds mistrust of Bond’s boss and MI6 Section Chief, M (Dame Judi Dench).
Jean Luc-Godard, father of the nouvelle vague, famously stated, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” The girl is Naomie Harris as junior field agent Eve, and the gun is the Walther PPK. Enter Ben Whishaw, the spindly hipster Quartermaster with the weapons and gadgets. It would be ludicrous to attempt an impersonation of the character Desmond Llewelyn immortalized in seventeen films from 1963 to 1999. Mr. Whishaw, whose role as Ariel in Julie Taymor’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is unrecognizable from this, invokes only a hint of the late Mr. Llewelyn’s mannered smugness. Instead, his youth serves the story as the proper counterpoint. Bond’s the one well past his expiration date, tossing back acrid vodka martinis for analgesic effect, barely able to hurtle himself through one more mission for Queen and country.
Fitting, then, that Bond’s arsenal is stripped down to Spartan essentials—a pistol and radio. This is both a statement about the necessity of character development over action as well as a nod to to the literary origins of these characters. In Ian Fleming’s novels, James Bond originally holstered a Beretta. However, a bit of trivia for Bond aficionados, a firearms expert named Geoffrey Boothroyd wrote Mr. Fleming explaining why the Walther PPK was preferable over the Italian semiautomatic. In admiration, Mr. Fleming created the character of Major Boothroyd, a.k.a. “Q”, as the gadgets expert of MI6’s Quartermaster Branch.
Q: Well, I’ll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.
James Bond: Oh, so why do you need me?
Q: Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.
James Bond: Or not pulled. It’s hard to know which in your pajamas.
Replete with mindplay, the film examines the various relationships and degrees of trust Bond has with M, Q and and Q’s superior, Gareth Malory (Ralph Fiennes), Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. At 49, thirty years into his acting career, Mr. Fiennes perfectly inhabits the role of an MP who turns out to be a better strategist than a bureaucrat. The effectiveness of intelligence-on-the-ground is challenged by the Committee when several agents are killed and a drive containing the real identities of all MI6 field operatives is stolen.
This standard plot has been exploited in the spy genre multiple times, including Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible and perhaps one of the indiscernible Bourne films. But unlike these action-driven, CG-laden franchises, Skyfall returns to basics. The plot and economical but riveting action sequences (motorcycles on rooftops and a fight in shadows backlit by downtown Shanghai) are secondary to the film’s cinematography, direction, acting and writing.
The result is a denser-than-ever narrative that explores themes of abandonment, betrayal, death, and resurrection. Dialogues are far less expository, employed instead to give us character depth like never before. As Silva, Javier Bardem invokes the likes of Hannibal Lecter, Heath Ledger’s brilliant Joker, and his own Anton Chigurh, oozing lines with sexual aplomb, “Life clung to me like a disease.”
Clearly, Mr. Craig’s hard man version of Bond, unthreatened by Silva, is the remedy.
Footnotes: Some readers will undoudbtedly harass me for not uttering a syllable about Ms. Dench’s acting. That’s Dame Judi Dench, to you. What else needs to be said? The thespian, the Bond matriarch, the mother of all Bond girls, should get an Oscar just for being born.
My only real gripe with the film? Following their introduction at a lush resort near Macau, Bond follows Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), a slave of the Southeast Asian sex trade, enters her quarters, and follows her into the shower. This scene would never have been written by a woman, even given Bond’s nature. While an aggressive playboy, it seems inappropriate that the otherwise observant agent would ever impose himself on such a victimized woman.
Skyfall • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Running Time: 143 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking. • Distributed by Columbia Pictures