Skyfall: A Surprisingly Elegiac James Bond Picture

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Nov. 8 2012 7:07 PM

Skyfall

A portrait of a spy at the end of his rope.

Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Skyfall.
Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Skyfall.

Photo by Francois Duhamel/Danjaq, LLC/United Artists Corporation/Columbia Pictures Industries.

Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond film since the series began 50 years ago and the third in a row to star Daniel Craig as the imperviously dapper British secret agent, takes Bond to deeper and darker places than he’s visited in a long while, maybe ever. Beginning with the stunning opening credit sequence (designed by Daniel Kleinman), in which Adele’s apocalyptic title ballad (“This is the end/ Hold your breath and count to ten …”) accompanies images of blood swirling into dark vortices and tombstones inscribed with Bond’s name, it’s clear that director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) intends this to be something more than a campy action adventure. Yes, there are shaken martinis and leggy babes and gadgets aplenty. But for a spy thriller that includes a fistfight in the lair of a Komodo dragon—built, as all Komodo-dragon lairs should be, into the gambling floor of a Macau casino—Skyfall (shot in burnished-velvet tones by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins) is an unexpectedly somber, even elegiac film.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

There’s a longstanding rumor that Idris Elba, the English actor who played Stringer Bell in The Wire, is on the short list to be the next James Bond. It’s intriguing to imagine the intense, charismatic Elba in the role (though he’s arguably overqualified and has said that he resists the idea of becoming known as the “black James Bond.”) Meanwhile, Daniel Craig has been making noise—very recent and not very polite noise—about wanting out of his five-film contract. I’d be sad to see Craig go quite so soon—his raw, craggy masculinity has brought something fresh to the role—but Skyfall leaves you wondering whether this incarnation of the character has anywhere left to go. It’s the portrait of a spy at the end of his rope by an actor who seems close to his.

Mendes has said in interviews that, in approaching the franchise, he took his cue from the late novels of Bond creator Ian Fleming, in which the aging spy suffers from “lassitude, boredom [and] depression” as he begins to confront his guilt and ambivalence about the murderous reality of his job. The film is permeated by a similar mood, occasionally provoking copycat lassitude in the audience. But Skyfall is actually at its best when it isn’t even trying to have fun. The scenes (and there are many) in which Bond bags international beauties and slugs it out with bad guys atop moving trains can feel long and a bit perfunctory (do we really ever need to see a motorcycle upset a fruit cart again?). But the last act, which takes place at the gloomy abandoned Scottish estate where, we learn, James Bond was born and orphaned, is one of the few passages from a Bond film I can remember that’s genuinely moving.

We first join Bond in Istanbul, where he and fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) are attempting to recover a hard drive stolen from a murdered MI6 agent that contains the names and identities of secret agents embedded in terrorist organizations around the world. In his attempt to recover the object, Bond is shot, plunges from aforementioned moving train into a rushing river, and is presumed dead (not a spoiler given that all this, along with a motorcycle chase across the rooftops of Istanbul, happens in the first 10 minutes). His boss, MI6 chief M (Judi Dench) has barely finished writing his obituary when he reappears to help her out of a jam—a mastermind hacker has seized hold of the classified disc and planted a bomb in MI6’s London headquarters.

Bond is dispatched to the East, where he tussles with the superhacker’s underlings in a Shanghai skyscraper and, later, in that Macau casino with the convenient carnivorous-lizard den. He meets up with the slinky Sévérine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), a child sex slave turned tormented gangster’s moll whose story arc is strangely truncated—we’re led to believe she’ll be more important to both Bond and the story than she’s ever allowed to become.

Over an hour in, we finally get a glimpse of the villain, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent with a colossal grudge against M (for reasons he’ll explain in a scene that’s as disturbing as it is implausible). Bleach-blond, white-clad, and sexually ambiguous, Bardem does everything but stroke an ocelot as he interrogates and humiliates Bond in a scene that’s equal parts torture and flirtation. It’s clear Bardem is having a grand old time playing a Bond villain, but at heart, the role isn’t that interesting. Compared with Anton Chigurh, the implacable, motiveless, and terrifying killer Bardem played in No Country for Old Men, Silva seems like an off-the-shelf supervillain, less a force of nature than a force of screenwriting.

The real drama in Skyfall occurs neither between the hero and the villain nor the hero and his love interest(s), but between the hero and his boss, in those final, at times wrenching, scenes at the titular Scottish estate. In her seventh go-round as M, Dench is both staunch and vulnerable; it’s she, the film implies, who’s Bond’s true soulmate. When MP Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) warns M that the hacking scandal has the intelligence and security committee seeking her ouster, she and Bond have a conversation about their status as Cold War-era dinosaurs that’s as close as anything I’ve heard in a Bond film to a valediction.

Also play with with Slate's James Bond Movie Generator.