I have been desperate to see Paddington 2 for a while now even though, until this week, I hadn’t seen the first film. When it first came out in 2014 I wasn’t sure it was ever going to be able to capture the brilliance that I remembered from childhood. I was a cynical 26 year old who wouldn’t admit to wanting to see a children’s film. So I never did. I guess it begs the question, why, then, was I so desperate to see its sequel? Well, for one thing, my friend doesn’t bloody stop going on about how great it is recently. For another, it’s got a 100% certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has been nominated for a fair few BAFTAs. Now I realise that it’s never wise to read too much into the ratings on Rotten Tomatoes but there aren’t many films who have ever managed it. So I guess there was more to this than met my sceptical eye. It was time to finally catch-up on what I’d missed so I watched the first film. It wasn’t completely perfect but I absolutely loved it. It was funny, sweet, and wonderfully British. Everything that is so great about the Paddington stories by Michael Bond was brought to life thanks to Paul King’s film. And Benjamin Wishaw? He was clearly born to play a talking bear who loves marmalade and looks great in hats. How could I not, after that, make it my mission to see the second?
Writing this blog only makes me realise just how little I’ve read of contemporary writers and I end up feeling like the biggest failure of a Literature graduate. Whilst I’m sat here with an insane amount of knowledge about novels of sensibility, I can’t even remember the last Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel I read. Thanks to some quick Wikipedia-ing I’ve discovered that it was the 2007 shortlisted On Chesil Beach(which is only because I adore Ian McEwan). I own a lot of the novels but just haven’t got round to reading them yet (not even The Sense of An Ending which is fucking tiny). I’m so ashamed. Given this fact, it will come as no shock to you that I have yet to read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. However, I have enough of an awareness of the basic details surrounding its structure and content to understand why it was referred to as one the many, so-called, “unfilmable” novels. So it was always going to be a massive undertaking for Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski’s to create something worthy of the Richard and Judy Award winning novel.
Daniel Craig’s time as James Bond has certainly had its ups and downs since the announcement that he would take over from previous incarnation Pierce Brosnan. Although, I think it’s safe to say that, despite what you may have thought about Quantum, Craig has shown that he has more than enough skill to take on the challenge of such a renowned figure. This was a Bond for the modern age; a Bond who takes on the physical challenges expected of a super spy whilst still looking every part the traditional English gent. That was the greatest thing about Casino Royale, we had a film that took a character rooted in the British tradition of stiff upper lipped patriotism and turned him into a gritty action hero with just enough heart. Casino Royale changed the rules for 007 and remains the best film of the series. This has, of course, meant that all future films will be compared to it. Something that didn’t go well for the disappointing and much criticised Quantum of Solace and something that will mean that Skyfall won’t get the full appreciation that it deserves. It is no Casino Royale but the latest offering is the perfect celebration of 50 years of Ian Fleming’s literary construction.
For this is the ultimate purpose of Skyfall; respecting the past whilst accepting that times have changed and Mr Bond has had to move with them. The film makes several key nods to the Bonds of the past whilst maintaining that he is still the same, dark, moody and damaged super spy that we are used to nowadays. In keeping with the current craze of Nolanesque sensitive and broody heroes, Bond has a certain amount soul searching to do in between the Jason Bourne style stunts. Forget Connery, Moore and co., this is the James Bond for the 21st century. The storyline itself shows a deeper awareness of current events as it leads us through strands based around cyber-terrorism, the theft of sensitive data and government inquires. Providing the perfect opportunity to introduce the 007 to his new quartermaster and techno wizkid, played by the always brilliant Ben Whisaw. Gone are the amazing but nevertheless rather quaint gadgets of old; no more exploding pens, jet packs and submarine cars for our slick, modern spy. No, we find ourselves in a simpler, more realistic world where it is computer hacking, a personalised gun and a radio that will save the day.
Despite this focus on a more stately, up-to-date action man, Mendes goes through the motions and offers the audience all of the traits that we have come to expect from a half-decent Bond film. The director obediently ensures that the credits sequence, the sexy ladies, the cars, the exotic locations, the gadgets and the ruthless villain all get their moment. Unfortunately a lot of it is done rather half-heartedly and simply to keep the fans happy. Particularly in regards to the token Bond girls, namely Eve (Naomie Harris) Bond’s flirty MI6 colleague and femme fatale Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), who come across as underwhelming and pretty unnecessary. I don’t want to find myself in a feminist anti-Bond girl rant because, frankly, I feel like a Bond film without at least one sexy foil slightly misses the point of Fleming’s original creation. However, in this film it seems that there should only have been one leading lady in Bond’s adventure. For the past seven Bond films, Judi Dench’s M has been standing on the outskirts disapproving of the eponymous spy’s trigger-happy behaviour and his eye for the ladies. It was about time that she got her moment in the spotlight and given the chance to show what she could be. Forget the scantily clad ladies that have graced our screens and James’ bed for the past 50 years, it is M who is the quintessential Bond girl. She is the feisty, strong and ruthless matriarch with a string of men eager to lay down their lives at her say so. Quite simply, M is the Queen of the Bond girls.
Once the necessities are out of the way the film is able to really get going. Skyfall is the first Bond film to really make use of home soil and the set pieces in London and the Scottish highlands are a wonder. It is all very familiar and shows the real concerns for 007. In Silva’s plot for revenge it is the innocent London commuters that get caught up in the action. Bond must save the country he has spent 50 years serving whilst his boss must justify the department she heads up. Writers Neal Purvic, Robert Wade and John Logan provide us with all of the in-jokes and references that you would expect from this celebratory production but present us with a fresh and engrossing story that shows us the franchise still has something to offer its fans.
Although, there is a sense that the film has been too influenced by the new breed of superhero and the latest Hollywood trend of exploring the emotional damage at the heart of every half decent struggle with evil. I must admit that my heart sank when there was mention of the tragedy surrounding Bond’s parents as I was sure a Nolanesque tale of a damaged orphan dealing with his loneliness was looming. Thankfully these references are short-lived and don’t distract from the most important feature. Skyfall flirts with a more introspective and emotional attitude but there is no doubt that this is an all action flick. Sam Mendes was brought in to bring back a certain amount of credibility to the franchise after the much criticised Quantum of Solace and in the pre-credits sequence he certainly proves that when you place a train-top fist-fight in his lap he can deal with it. Mendes plays down the Bourne style action that created such disappointment in Quantum but still provides us with several memorable sequences of high-octane drama. I’m sure that pretty much every review you may have read about Skyfall will have made at least a passing reference to the amazingly talented cinematographer, Roger Deakins. After their previous collaborations on Jarhead and Revolutionary Road, Mendes and Deakins join forces once more and offer the audience some of the best visuals of the entire series. Skyfall is, quite simply, a feast for the eyes. You need only take another look at the moments in China to see how good these two are; scenes such as the one that takes place in an office building where a gorgeous light show accompanies an assassination, show us that action films can also be beautiful films.
Of course, the film isn’t just a success thanks to the two key figures behind the scenes. It is thanks to the awesome trio that lead the plot and their great interactions that really make Skyfall such a triumph. We are presented with an obviously older and more careworn 007 who has clearly been through quite a lot since his double 0 debut in Casino Royale. Craig’s Bond is as harried, stern and deadly as ever and he leads us through Bond’s beardy, physically and emotionally damaged period better than Bronhom ever did in Die Another Day. He has something to prove to himself and, most importantly, to his superiors. He not only has to save everyone but show that his boss’ continued faith in his skills isn’t as ill-advised at it may seem. It was about time that more weight was given to the turbulent relationship between Bond and M and Judi Dench and Daniel Craig have such a great chemistry that it’s a shame that they couldn’t have shared even more screen time. The relationship has been one of respect, loyalty, subtextual (and fairly oedipal) eroticism, and, to steal a phrase from Peter Bradshaw, “smouldering resentment”. M demands everything from her agents but is more than happy to risk their safety and their lives to succeed. It is something that Bond has, so far, not questioned and has enabled him to enjoy pushing their bond to its limits. That is until a rather terrifying face from M’s past returns to force her into atoning for her sins.
That face belongs to a blonde and creepily eccentric Javier Bardem who presents us with one of the most dangerous yet enigmatic Bond villains of all time. In line with the rest of the film’s visuals, Silva is a sight to behold. I have seen comparisons with Julian Assange, Larry Grayson and Jimmy Saville. Whatever you’re view, there is no denying that Silva looks unsettling thanks to his intensely blond appearance. Silva is the Mr Hyde to Bond’s Dr Jekyl; they both share the skills of a super spy and share a rollercoaster relationship with M. Bardem’s villain is sensational. From his utterly captivating entrance, spouting his parable about rats in a barrel, onwards he gets under Bond’s skin and forces him to question the foundations of his whole life. Even his love of women thanks to an eerily flirty encounter whilst Bond is tied to a chair. It is the interactions of these three figures and an excellent supporting cast that drive the action and intense storyline of the 23rd outing of Fleming’s hero.
There is little doubt that Skyfall is a great Bond film; it more than makes up for the previous film and allows both old and new fans to see how, important, enjoyable and exciting the last 50 years have been. It is not perfect but Mendes does a remarkable job to mix the old with the new and make a bloody good film at the same time. His turn is sombre, thoughtful and incredibly brash all at the same time. It takes some time to get going but once the obligatory Bond guidelines have been adhered to the film really opens up. We are taken on a wild adventure through Turkey, China and London and end up in an explosive finale in the remote Scottish Highlands. The lead actors and their supporting cast (with a vital but short appearance from the outstanding Albert Finney) we have a Bond film worthy of the character and the fans. With its slight emotional core adding to, and not distracting from, the action, Skyfall just goes to show there is still a place for the likes of James Bond in our society.