As we close in on No Time to Die, and the final Daniel Craig-era James Bond movie, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months at Sam Mendes’ 2012 Bond mega hit, Skyfall…
After the thrill ride of the pre-titles sequence and the subsequent barrage of avant garde imagery of James Bond’s voyage into the netherworld, Skyfall settles down into more practical matters.
A quiet calm rests over London following the storm in Turkey. M is faced with Bond’s obituary, officially recognising his title of Commander – the first Daniel Craig-era nod, in fact, of Bond’s naval history, a long-standing factor in Ian Fleming’s source material and the Roger Moore & Pierce Brosnan-era films particularly. It’s on brand for 007 – brief, clinical, and redolent of the traditional Establishment values the character embodies. M has no idea what to say beyond the varnished facts, given the secrecy of his work. Skyfall will chart a journey toward a quiet admission of care and emotion between these two people as the film unfurls, but at this point Bond is, despite being M’s best agent, another dead government employee. His obituary, for all Bond’s heroism, will reflect the passing of a normal, traditional serviceman.
In these calm, reflective scenes, Sam Mendes works to ground Skyfall in a latent sense of Empire, of the ghosts of British colonialism and patriotism haunting the frame like almost never before in a Bond movie. Being initially developed by two American impresarios in Cubby Broccoli & Harry Saltzman in the 1960’s, for decades the Bond film series often worked as a Stateside impression of austere colonial glamour. Americans could never quite understand it because their very foundation was born as a reaction to it. Mendes reintroduces that sense of old-fashioned empirical Englishness in Skyfall that Bond has maybe never quite seen before in cinematic terms. If Casino Royale returned to the grit of Fleming’s character, Skyfall captures Establishment England in a unique, Flemingian way. No Bond movie has been set more in London and indeed the wider United Kingdom than Skyfall in fifty years. That’s pointed.
Skyfall, in these early scenes, begins to detail how M’s journey will be backwards rather than forwards. Much like Bond, the past will come to haunt her, and the film itself, in a significant way.
Before M travels to Whitehall, “like being summoned to the headmasters study” as she puts it, Mendes accentuates the British Bulldog on her desk. He pulls his camera down from colonial-era London statues, the sight of which feel ever more pointed in hindsight given the recent Black Lives Matter rebellion against their existence.
Mendes’ London in Skyfall is not the metropolitan, liberal hub often depicted in cinema these days, but rather a representation of the historic, marble-clad, stone set centre of empire centuries past. His London is grey, wet and imposing, a monolith to the Establishment thinking Bond was conceived at the very tail end of, before the burgeoning advent of Western counter-culture freed subsequent generations from the shackles of decaying imperial thinking. Skyfall is a reminder that such thinking, such a world, never went away.
M, the strong female figurehead of the world’s most famous secret service, is nevertheless summoned by the initially patrician form of Whitehall mandarin Gareth Mallory (a nicely officious yet likeable Ralph Fiennes) for a dressing down. She is pulled from the modernised surroundings of an open-plan, technological Vauxhall Cross MI6 back to the ancient rooms of old Britain, festooned with portraits of imperial glories past.
The cultural terms in which events are packaged and transmitted nearly always negotiate with and mediate their reception. Chapman and Cull have suggested that cinema has long been “a vehicle for disseminating images and ideologies of Empire”. (2009, 1) The claim may be paired with the recent surge in the production and dissemination of such images. Viceroy’s House (2017), Victoria and Abdul (2017), Dunkirk (2017) and Darkest Hour (2017) all deal with various aspects of Britain’s glorious past. With James Bond, the franchise has always moored itself in Pax Britannica. 007 is often considered an agent of cultural imperialism and post-imperial virility, and represents the continued relevance of Britain to world politics. While the films mentioned above fall into the period piece category, Sam Mendes ably demonstrates that Empire continues to reverberate, and perhaps even inspire, as a metaphor in a present-day setting. In this way, ‘Bond 23’ raises the stakes in restoring the moral high ground to Britain after the ghosts of imperial crimes have been exorcised.
Ahmed’s argument that Skyfall exorcises empire as well as personal demons is a confident one, yet it grows wearier as a reality year on year, as said imperial ghosts begin to rise and reconstruct themselves amidst the Brexit-era mire of British nationalism, driven in no small part by the wealthy post-colonial elite.
M, in a sense, is of two worlds. She reinforces a literal elite in the 00 section, theoretically made up of numerous agents at the apex of espionage skill (even if we most often only ever see Bond as the representation of them), and in doing so she upholds Britain’s place as a cultural historic major power, if not an economic one. Yet at the same time, she fights against a new order Mallory, certainly at this stage of the film, represents. “The Prime Minister is concerned” he admits, clarifying how Bond has been ‘dead’ three months (it’s taken M a while to write that obituary!) and the Turkey mission was to recover a stolen hard drive containing the identity of every NATO agent globally undercover in terrorist organisations. Incidentally, in another comparison to Brian de Palma’s Mission Impossible, Skyfall essentially has the exact same plot, given the IMF lost the Noc list detailing every undercover agent in the post-Cold War sphere. Even in our digital age, it’s a no less important geopolitical safety concern.
The difference here is that Mallory actively places the blame on this to M, and there is an underlying suggestion that the Prime Minister, and we can assume given this is 2012 he’s talking about the mercurial Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government (though Bond films are rarely vulgar enough to tether actual political parties or figures to their movies, unless you’re For Your Eyes Only!), considers M to be past it. She’s a woman, she’s old, and she’s taken her eye off the ball. “Are we to call this, ‘civilian oversight’?” M asks. “No, we’re to call this ‘retirement planning’.” Mallory admits, trying and largely failing not to sound patronising.
Despite M’s rock solid leadership in the post-Cold War years of uncertainty, instability and rising global terror following 9/11, one mistake and she’s to be pensioned off, given a few honours and then forgotten about. In this sense, she’s as disposable as Bond or any 00 agent, and this speaks to the cold Whitehall technocratic oppobrium of modern British governments. Find a scapegoat, nail a mistake on them, move on and hope nobody notices.
M, of course, is no shrinking violet or naive operative. She is stalwart and refuses to let herself be pushed out by the Whitehall machine. She’ll go on her own terms. “M, you’ve had a great run,” Mallory asserts. “You should leave with dignity”. There’s almost something slightly meta about this, as if Mendes is talking to Judi Dench herself, encouraging her to quit while she’s ahead. Dench has, of course, established herself as perhaps the most iconic M in Bond history – she might even have eclipsed Bernard Lee’s initial performance, which Fiennes has now in many respects modified for his M in the modern day.
Dench’s fixture as a definitive M, female or not, is probably in no small part for the fact her character gets a genuine ending. Lee died off screen and was written out. Robert Brown was simply replaced having sketched a copy, in essence, of that role. Dench came into the role in GoldenEye loaded with expectations as a take on MI6’s real life chief Stella Rimmington, and crafted a character of her own across two Bond eras. Building Skyfall around her character, and her demise, only speaks to the strength and impact of Dench’s performance.
The seeds of M’s arc truly begin with the attack on Vauxhall Cross which destroys the very area we saw her command in the PTS, and puts the building permanently out of action (it is later blown up completely in Spectre). This in itself is a symbol of how Mendes is intent in returning Bond to imperialist roots, removing the service from the modernised building we had previously see Brosnan’s Bond fly a souped up Q-boat out of. Skyfall detaches Craig’s era firmly, geographically, from the previous one in destroying MI6’s modern home, and it serves as the first attack on M’s personal and political sovereignty. Who we know later to be Silva isn’t even subtle about why either, given the spiked hacker image he sends directly to M via the computer of hers he has breached in order to attack her homestead.
There is a twisted playfulness about this message which distinctly echoes the Joker from the Batman series. Few major cinematic blockbusters post-2008 haven’t in some measure been inspired by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Skyfall is no exception in this regard. M’s message is a disturbed, chaotic inversion of her role as ‘queen’ of MI6, and on a meta level the regal nature of Dench’s persona and performance – plus Dench has of course played Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, the latter on two occasions.
“Think on your sins” is not just a goading phrase but a chilling, ominous one, suggestive of the kind of dark secrets you don’t expect from the inviolate bastion of order that M embodies. The idea that M, played by perhaps the most dignified grand Dame of her age, could be corrupt is a sinister idea, and both plants seeds of doubt in the audience while further adding to the thematic ideas resonating in John Logan’s script of confronting the past.
The past, both M’s, Bond’s, and Britain’s neo-colonial legacy, are established here as the foundations on which Skyfall will rest.
Don’t miss out on the other parts of this series:
II – Let the Sky Fall
IV – Enjoying Death
V – New Digs
VI – A Bloody Big Ship
VII – Old Dog, New Tricks
VIII – I Like You Better, Without Your Beretta
IX – First Time for Everything
X – Look Upon Your Work, Mother
XI – …And Not to Yield
XII – Jumped Up Little Shit
XIII – Last Rat Standing
XIV – With Pleasure
Or other Scene by Scene movie breakdowns:
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