(directed by Sam Mendes, 2012)
Sam Mendes isn’t the kind of director you’d expect to see at the helm of a Bond film, but the gamble paid off: for me, this is the most intelligent and thoughtful instalment in the entire franchise. The essence of Bond is still here – the writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have been involved with the series since the Brosnan era – but it follows Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace in distilling that essence into a sleeker and more modern format. That tension between the old and the new, the traditional and the innovative, underpins the entire film.
Again and again we return to the question of whether age should be valued for the greater experience it brings, or whether it makes an institution or individual irrelevant to the ever-changing modern world. Is it purely coincidence, I wonder, that these questions have been posed – and triumphantly dismissed – in a Jubilee year, when another hard-working older woman and another venerable institution have been in the limelight?
Following the loss of a top-secret hard drive containing agent details, and a subsequent cyber-attack on the heart of MI6 itself, M (Judi Dench on fine form) is called to account. Her ministerial watchdog, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) announces that she is expected to take voluntary retirement: she is considered to be past it. MI6 is subjected to a government inquiry, that knee-jerk reaction to any modern failure or scandal which threatens to taint Whitehall. The government regards M as a person and MI6 as an institution to be outdated, verging on obsolete, in a technological age where the threats and challenges are very different to the classic demands of espionage.
Bond himself, who is officially registered as dead after a thrilling opening sequence, is offered an easy way out by Mallory. Why doesn’t he just head off into the sunset and enjoy a quiet retirement? Frankly, isn’t he a bit of a dinosaur? (It’s hardly spoiling the plot to say that M and Bond make a vigorous case for their continued relevance.) But it’s true that national security now has new enemies: it’s all about techno-espionage, as demonstrated by Javier Bardem’s super-hacker villain, Silva – and also by the new, narrowly post-adolescent Q (the ever-excellent Ben Whishaw), who casually points out that he can wreak as much havoc as Bond, from his laptop, in his pyjamas, before breakfast.
The film does well to face these issues, because until recently the Bond brand risked becoming utterly divorced from the real world. You might argue that audiences respond well to vintage glamour: a casino scene here; a tuxedo there; a seriously classy Aston Martin over in the corner… but the thing is that Bond has to stay dynamic in order to keep those audiences coming back. And that’s something that the relaunch with Daniel Craig has done very well. The film obligingly nods to the Bond traditions without getting bogged down in them. I wouldn’t exactly say that the franchise is embracing feminism, but there isn’t quite as much Bond-girl objectification as usual. Bond engages in a couple of clinches, but each lasts only a couple of seconds and seems primarily intended to reassure the audience that we are indeed watching a Bond film. Naturally, Bond himself remains fairly Neanderthal in his interactions with women, even with the refreshingly feisty Eve (Naomie Harris; promising), with the sole exception of his almost filial relationship with M. In her turn, M protects her own. The film teases us with the prospect of Bond being over the hill. The physical and psychological tests appear to say so. But M rewards his fidelity with her faith, and sends him out again.
That relationship between agent and supervisor plays a massive role in the film, because we are also shown the flipside. When such intense loyalty is demanded of an agent, what are the state’s responsibilities to that agent? When an agent is abandoned by his country, what duty does he then owe to that country? And what if he isn’t really loyal to the country but to M herself? How does rejection affect the agent then? Enter Bond’s present nemesis, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), whose desire for revenge on M stems from just such a betrayal. From what I’ve read and heard, people seem to be divided over Silva as a villain. One of my colleagues thought he was a bit too camp, but I thought Bardem was immensely good. He manages that rare feat of humanising a villain: Silva has a genuinely good reason to feel let down by M and the system. Although I was obviously rooting for Bond, I could see where Silva was coming from, which is more than I can say for the stereotypical Dr-Evil types.
This might make the whole thing sound a bit ponderous and serious, but it isn’t at all. There was some good humour and, of course, it’s a jolly good romp at heart. The traditionally over-the-top opening sequence in Constantinople set the tone for some great effects later on – most memorably, for an adoptive Londoner, the sight of a Tube train crashing down into a subterranean cavern. I always had my doubts about the District Line. But lots of the striking visual appeal comes not from explosions and car chases but from Mendes’s subtle and beautiful cinematography. Two examples spring to mind. In an early scene in Shanghai, Bond stalks his prey through an upper floor in a deserted glass skyscraper. Scrolling digital adverts on neighbouring buildings are reflected by plate glass walls and doors, like a dangerous maze. And then, towards the end, Mendes pulls off a stunning vista of a barren heath silhouetted against glowing orange flame. The combination of crowd-pleasing franchise and typically art-house director has turned out to be a match made in heaven. In short, it’s got class.