Will you be seeing Skyfall, the twenty-third film in the James Bond series when it comes out in the US tomorrow (November 9th)? I can’t imagine it’s been accompanied by the same amount of fanfare in the US as in the UK – especially as, shall we say, you’ve had other things on? – as for us, over here, James Bond is a cultural institution and a social lightning rod, expressing our feelings about our country as whole at that one particular time. This one, which I have seen twice now, both times in packed, excited cinemas that crackled with excitement as the trailers finished and the film card came up, does the same thing for the national psyche again, wryly summing our feelings up in a way that is difficult to do collectively through any other means. We do hate to admit we have feelings, you see.
We’ve had a complicated old year this year, which means Skyfall is a complicated old film with a narrative constructed around the idea of looking backwards whilst looking forwards. At face value, it’s proud and handsome, with a resplendent Adele at the helm of the soundtrack and Daniel Craig quite the confidant bastard, coolly adjusting his cuff-links whilst falling off the back of a train carriage and not getting a mark on a stitch of his lovingly-crafted Tom Ford. And on the other hand, it’s a story of regret, abandonment, self-doubt, the tyranny of old age and the clearing out of the Old Guard. It’s stoicism in the face of adversity and the acceptance of inevitable loss as technology moves on and the world order changes. I will be deliberately vague throughout this article so as not to give too much of the plot away.
The pre-eminent symbol of Skyfall is the bulldog. A small china bulldog, draped in a Union Jack with a classic Churchill sneer, sits on M’s desk throughout and is gifted to James Bond at the end. This is our symbol of stoicism, and of Churchill’s WWII speeches, and of stiff upper lip. It’s our symbol of coping, and I know that the British manner of doing this is known and mocked the world over: we swallow it, we wear masks of unaffected resilience and we make jokes as dark as the situation. This is why we have such a culture of satire: nothing takes the sting out of a situation as much as taking the authority out of it, even if the bad outcome doesn’t change. Our black humour binds us, and as much as Claire Dane’s cry-face makes me sad for her in Homeland, nothing moves me as much as the sight of someone like Judi Dench’s M character firing out a grim straight-faced riposte to hide the fact that her heart is breaking inside. Talking of Judi Dench, women are represented beautifully in this film, between her representing the tough last bastion of MI6, to Naomie Harris telling the story of how Moneypenny was actually a kick-ass field agent who knows Bond’s job so well because she’s done it (and shot him whilst she did…). What I’m saying is, when times are tough, the bulldog comes out, along with the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ that epitomised UK resistance in WWII, and that is given as the country’s current united mental state.
Also, this film acknowledges the history of the Bond franchise in a respectful, affectionate manner – at one point, Q remarks that they ‘don’t really go in for exploding pens these days’ – whilst looking firmly forwards. It’s no coincidence that Hong Kong features as the absent setting and lynch pin for key parts of the narrative, as we’d struggle to find a better modern example of how the UK has had to develop and change with the passing years: the handing back of Hong Kong in 1997 ended 156 years of British governance there and was the final step in the disbanding of the British empire. It might seem a little odd to talk nostalgically about British colonialism on a site for under-represented voices – for balance, check out Wong Kar-Wai’s great film Chungking Express for the Chinese Hong Kong perspective – but it is a key part of Britain’s heritage and now I think it serves to represent the old Britain and how things were, much as the ageing M does within the changing MI6.
The conflict of past and present is represented in a number of ways during this film: without giving too much away, cyber-terrorist Silva stands for the future against the sometimes antiquated ways of British intelligence, the new and bright Shanghai stands against an old, traditional, Stieg Larsson-esque presentation of the northern wilds of Scotland and even James Bond experiences conflict between the new and older versions of himself, as he struggles to move on in the face of diminished fitness and old injury, protecting the old institutions whilst seeking out a new, improved version of himself. There is a great speech in the middle of the film that talks about how Britain’s enemies have changed from being nations and political movements to individuals who operate ‘in the shadows’, which is them followed by a verse from Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which describes how the only constant is the need to ‘seek, to strive, to find and not to yield’, the epic poem to the clash of past and present, and how the key things of life never change. Judging by this, we are ready to move forwards but our past still somewhat defines us, and our direction we’re going in is perhaps a little unclear.
Skyfall is a sophisticated, handsome, probing film with much depth and meaning alongside some top-notch and obligatory car chases and romance, which is actually saying much more than it might first appear. I welled up several times and left the cinema both surer of Britain’s place in the world and more worried for it. In a US election week, I’m sure you know what I mean by that, but it pleases me to think that our projection of self into the world this year, together with the London Olympics, amounts to more than blustering, unquestioning bluster and camp exploding pens.
- Lyndsay Wheble