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Tired Old James Bond

Tom Cutterham

Sam Mendes
26 October
2012 (UK)







There is a single powerful moment in the new Bond film. Judi Dench’s M is testifying before a select committee while, intercut, Javier Bardem’s bad guy makes his inexorable way towards her, disguised along with his henchmen in police uniform. The scene is effective not least because it plays on the terrifying potential violence inherent in the police force itself, a terror and violence experienced by many peaceful protestors, not to mention the families of victims like Jean-Charles de Menezes. In the wood-panelled committee room, M piously quotes Tennyson to the assembled dignitaries; moments later, they are quivering on their knees.

Mostly, though, Skyfall is a starry-eyed paean to the Bond franchise. We might even call it the Bond idea. In a series that has lately, if not always, been characterised by its unique sense of self-parody, Mendes’s effort mixes its nods and winks with liberal measures of straight nostalgia. We get a bit of a laugh when the barmaid vigorously shakes Bond’s martini, and especially when his secret getaway car turns out to be the same Aston Martin DB5 favoured by Sean Connery in Goldfinger. The joke is that it isn’t very subtle, which has always been Bond’s style, after all.

Driving a 1960s vintage car is a symbolic gesture to match the key narrative turn of the film’s final third, when the entire cast heads to Scotland and the old Bond estate, both literally and figuratively to escape the complexity of London’s modernity. M’s speech to the select committee is supposed to defend the methods of her MI6 against charges of brutish irrelevance and incompetence, but what she says is almost completely incoherent. In order to operate, James Bond—the idea, the film, the man—always has to be somewhere quite different from the world we actually live in.

What M’s speech does express is the neoconservative rhetoric of fear that underpins the security state. Justifying her own role and her organisation’s existence, she asks only, “do you feel safe?” Hers is a brand of matriarchal protectiveness far removed from the so-called nanny state. This mother has claws. But as much as the critics have praised Dench’s enlarged role, the film’s psychological mechanism—which puts her at the centre—is as rudimentary and antiquated as the technology Bond prefers.

Javier Bardem plays a great supervillain, but his character in Skyfall is hardly comparable with the one in No Country for Old Men. In the latter, his power came from stripping affect and minimising psychology. For Skyfall, he’s given an Oedipal motivation straight out of the most hackneyed comic book. It’s a particularly reactionary psychological vision that marries the bad guy’s camp homoeroticism with a creepy mother fetish. Bond himself, naturally, is a vision of hypersexed masculinity; and it’s he who must in the end save mother, even if he cannot rescue all the other doomed, weak women.

Perhaps it’s only fair that Bond films should be misogynist and heteronormative as well as layered with racial and class stereotypes. So it has always been. Just don’t tell me this is cleverer or more sophisticated than its predecessors. In one sense at least, it’s a step backwards: the first Daniel Craig version, Casino Royale, depicted Bond as a pawn trapped in a much larger and more complex struggle, in a similar way to the Jason Bourne films. Now, though, he’s back to being a superman, if a predictably flawed one.

In this film, Mendes has traded any attempt to think about real questions of power, security, and control for a cheap psychology that relegates the rest of the world to ignorant victimhood. It’s appropriate that Bardem’s character is an ex-MI6 agent, like Bond’s earlier nemesis, Alec Trevelyan. In a world where spies like them still matter, Skyfall makes it clear that nobody else does.

Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He is editor-in-chief at the Oxonian Review.