Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Skyfall  Sam Mendes, 2012, UK

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air -
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath -
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

- Alan Seeger, American poet and soldier, killed in action in northern France while serving with the French Foreign Legion on 4 July 1916, aged 28

Skyfall - Bond 1
Skyfall - M

James Bond’s obituary has been written many times, on screen and off.

The Secret Intelligence Service’s most special agent was nominally killed and even buried in the opening sequence of You Only Live Twice. Ian Fleming died in 1964; the final Bond novel was published posthumously, and incomplete. Production of the films twice stalled after the departure of the leading actor and the poor reception accorded the last entry. All of this has threatened a character who has also fought to survive wars ended and begun, and loyalties strained and remade.

After a lengthy hiatus brought on by financial pressures and the need for a conceptual regroup following the incoherence of Quantum of Solace, the arrival of Skyfall will have seen the pen uncapped once more by critics and the public alike. And, indeed, before the second reel of the new film has run its course Bond’s obituary is duly prepared, this time by the person who knows him best.

But in M’s hesitancy to complete it, we see the core of the fiftieth anniversary release begin to be exposed. Throughout a film that will play with notions of duty and honour, trust and betrayal, Bond and M stand together to the end. The result is compelling.

A life that closes must first be lived. Supervised by M, Bond’s discovery of a dead MI6 agent and a missing list rapidly accelerates into a kinetic, relentless chase by car, motorcycle and train along the streets, across the rooftops and through the rail tunnels of Istanbul, the location one of several tributes paid to episodes past. A parallel pursuit develops as Bond’s driver Eve, played by Naomie Harris, races the train on which he and his adversary fight.

Challenge enough for any director yet Sam Mendes, new to this great game, grasps the epic scope and driven action immediately and controls it utterly. A thrilling physicality recalls the urgency and rawness of Fleming’s prose and is captured by camerawork and editing of immense lucidity, erasing forever the chaos that was his predecessor’s attempt. Daniel Craig again essays the visceral Bond who seldom holds back, here purposely crashing his bike into a balustrade so as to be catapulted onto the train passing below.

As Bond later plunges, flailing, into a river, arms floating wide beneath the surface, the narrative segues into the immersive opening credits. Death’s heads, diffusing blood, weapons becoming gravestones; Daniel Kleinman returns, filling this Acheron with disturbing imagery straight from hell itself.

In London, after, M is fighting with that obituary and Bond’s past but also with Mallory, Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee – Ralph Fiennes, impeccably polite but with the faintest undertow of menace – over her future. This is the real, prosaic world of oversight, governance, politicking and scrutiny hearings, a world not as far removed from the novels as commonly imagined, given their frequent references to corridors and files and endless reports to be written and read.

Much has been made of Bond coming home, but this is not the London of the Shard or the Gherkin or the Eye. It is instead a London of red buses, tube trains, bobbies and Whitehall. It is the London Fleming inhabited. The forced abandonment by MI6 of its flashy Vauxhall Cross base for temporary relocation to Churchill’s wartime bunker is thus entirely fitting, whilst the National Gallery is a suitably reassuring setting for a beautifully constructed scene in which Ben Wishaw as the new quartermaster is introduced to a resurrected but battered Bond. Its opening shot, with the camera contemplating Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, is the most subtle in the entire canon, spoiled only by heavy-handed dialogue clumsily and redundantly repeating the same point made by the shot alone. Meeting Bond again herself, Harris is remarkable. Grounded, smart, confident and completely natural, her presence is crucial to establishing this comforting atmosphere.

Such realism serves to settle characters and audience alike before the action moves abroad to Shanghai, accompanied by a startling yet thrilling shift in tone.

Here, with a hypnotic night-time car journey from airport to motorway to skyscraper, Mendes builds an extraordinary, hallucinogenic sequence through shots of floodlit overpasses, illuminated towers, reflection and refraction. Inside, the skyscraper is a dazzling kaleidoscope, bright neon splashes of red, yellow, green, blue leaping from velvet-black darkness and glass becoming surface, screen, mirror, barrier and portal. It is painterly and unworldly and exquisite, and almost entirely without dialogue. Though highly reminiscent of Michael Mann’s light-washed urban landscapes, Blade Runner or even Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell films, it most strongly calls to mind – and is perhaps a tribute to – Lewis Gilbert’s similarly masterful Pyramids sequence from The Spy Who Loved Me, whilst the silhouetted fist-fight is a neat hat-tip to the Maurice Binder titles of old. This dreamlike, almost psychedelic quality, initiated in the opening titles, is reprised in the final act.

Berenice Marlohe’s appearance as Severine in a Macao casino – her only real scene – is far more ominous. Panic and dread cross her Noh-mask face and suffuse her delivery of a key line – “How much do you know about fear?” – that begins the film’s second phase and marks a combat around and in a pit of Komodo dragons. This darkness is amplified with the introduction of Silva, a fellow agent who turned. Javier Bardem’s articulation of his perceived betrayal is sharp and dark and believably felt. Later, his recounting of a failed suicide bid by cyanide capsule – a brilliant touch, this, pulled right from Fleming’s mind – is genuinely horrific but also filled with pathos, compounded by the appalling revelation of the physical damage wrought.

This is another world, of venomous creatures, the Orient, the alien, the nightmarish world captured so perfectly by Richard Chopping in his jacket illustrations for the original novels. From this point on, a genuine and tangible feeling of dread infects the film, for the first time in the series.

It must be admitted that the middle act of Skyfall has flaws. Structural non-sequiturs include the cursory scene on the abandoned island, which appears to exist only to facilitate the remainder of the film, and the somewhat illogical London Underground chase complete with heavily-trailed train crash. Reintroducing Wishaw only to confine him to a desk is a miscalculation. And yet Mendes has achieved sufficient motivational and stylistic momentum by now to carry the viewer through.

As Silva’s plans unfold, M quotes from Tennyson’s Ulysses, the favourite poem of her dead husband. It foreshadows what is to come, as did Mallory’s own lines to her earlier about forced transition (the historical figure Thomas Mallory wrote Morte D’Arthur, an elegy for another English hero). Heroism and Britishness, Queen and country, are embedded in Skyfall. The Union Flag is everywhere, on Royal Navy helicopters, on Whitehall roofs, on M's little bulldog sculpture and draped over coffins. And yet in that very usage the film also questions the motive and meaning for Bond and M of their work, the work to secure ‘another kill for Her Majesty’, as the theme to Quantum of Solace had it. As the story moves to Scotland for its climax, all these themes align.

Again a stylistic shift occurs. Uncertain prospect is symbolised by Bond and M’s contemplation of the impenetrable, mist-filled valley ahead. The cold, atavistic mood is reflected in the bleached, earthy cinematography of browns, greens and greys. The retrograde technology already seen takes a further step backward with nineteenth century weapons in a sixteenth century house, Bond’s ancestral home. A proud stag remains atop one gatepost – the other has crumbled – and it houses his past, his present and his future. The final conflict, heralded by dark silhouettes moving over the moor and concluding in a fiery nightmare, alludes to such gritty dramas as Straw Dogs and is one of the most matter-of-fact and powerful action passages seen in any genre piece. Rightly, in that context, it ends in the only way possible.

This should be no surprise. This film is about death. Bond’s, his parents’, Severine’s, Silva’s, M’s. The skulls, the Komodos, the scorpion on Bond’s drinking hand, his reckless bike crash, the fallen stag, M’s late husband, the Temeraire, Bond's line to Kincaid expressing sur[rise that he is still alive, the film's title and the very first line of its theme song (‘This is the end’). That song’s lyric (‘Where you go I go/What you see I see/I know I'll never be me/without the security/Of your loving arms/Keeping me from harm/Put your hand in my hand/And we'll stand’) must also describe the love between Bond and M, with Silva’s feelings toward both its perverted mirror.

With Casino Royale, the world of James Bond was turned around and turned back. The triumph of Skyfall, with MI6 emerging from its subterranean warren – a chrysalis – to arrive at Whitehall with a male M and a new Moneypenny, resets the clock once more. It is a film about ends, but it ends with the hope of a new beginning, symbolised in ‘Eve’.

Skyfall - Harris
Skyfall - Bond 2
Skyfall - Macao
Skyfall - muzzleflash
Skyfall - rooftops

(Sony/Columbia/MGM/Danjaq)

Posted 3 November 2012, exactly a year to the day after the production team held a press conference to announce and introduce the cast, director and title of Skyfall, and amended on 1 January 2015

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