In the almost universal acclaim for the new James Bond film, Skyfall, there have been few dissenting voices: ‘the best Bond ever’ and ‘a return to the classics’ have been the overriding themes of the reviews. But in stripping Bond back to basics, has the new film lost as much as it’s gained?
WARNING: Contains spoilers if you haven’t seen Skyfall!
Giles Coren certainly seems to think this is the case: in a piece that was allegedly spiked by The Times but posted on his wife’s blog, he called it as ‘sick, reactionary, depressing film’, primarily in its treatment of women. It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Coren, but in this case I think he’s got a point.
Don’t get me wrong, there is much to love in Skyfall. Craig, as ever, is a brutal, believable Bond and director Sam Mendes proves himself surprisingly adept at the action scenes – gone are the messy jump cuts of Quantum of Solace, where choppy, flashy editing made the action almost impossible to follow. The storyline, too, eschews elaborate ‘take over the world’ plotlines – so hard to carry off in a post-Austin Powers world – for straightforward and far more understandable revenge. Pleasingly, in its 50th anniversary year, the franchise uses Bond’s home territory well: both London and Scotland look great and host stunning set pieces. The film is also not without a nod to the future, in Ben Whishaw’s geeky Q, all One Direction hair and Harry Potter charm.
But there are problems, and they aren’t minor. Take Javier Bardem’s villain, for a start. While it’s hard not to admire what Bardem did with such a potentially panto role, his bisexual baddie is a worrying throwback to those 70s serial killer movies where the murderer was always a closet gay with mother issues. Here ‘mommy’ may be M, but it’s hard not to contrast Bond’s robust heterosexuality (which, of course, survived lengthy incarceration at the hands of the North Koreans in the last Brosnan outing) with Silva’s effete malice, crumbling under torture instead of taking his punishment like a man.
This ties into the treatment of the women overall in the movie. In this newest incarnation of 007, the Bond girls have almost become superfluous. They may be beautiful, but they are bland and unmemorable, there simply to carry forward the plot and reinforce Bond’s hetero-masculinity. Because nowadays, it is Bond whose body the camera lingers over; it’s Bond who emerges, dripping, from the spray and whose nakedness we are invited to admire. 007 has become his own Bond girl, and it is perhaps fitting that we finally get a bad guy as taken with Bond’s sexiness as we are expected to be.
This leaves the actual Bond girls with little to do, and Skyfall fails dramatically in their portrayal. The first – some exotic hottie he shags while having his little ‘Bourne on the beach’ interlude – doesn’t get even a single line of dialogue, existing solely to drape herself decoratively across him as he stares moodily into space. The second is such a staggering misfire I’m surprised that no one actually stood up during filming and went, ‘hang on, isn’t this just plain creepy?’ Having a met a woman who was trafficked as a child and is clearly some evil man’s sexual plaything, Bond murders her handlers and, instead of turning up and talking to her, like a normal person, he strips naked and sneaks up on her in the shower. There’s so much wrong with this scene that it’s boggling. Whatever their brief flirtation (and it’s measured in minutes), to assume that you can just waltz naked into someone’s bathroom seems at best, presumptuous, at worst, stalkery and rapey. That the woman in question is so clearly damaged – and ends up dead in short shrift, of course – compounds the issue, and there was a genuine ripple of revulsion in the audience when I watched it.
Then let’s look at Naomie Harris. She starts off as an agent, makes one mistake in the field – and, indeed, you could argue it isn’t a mistake, since she was ordered to do it – and ends up (happily!) demoted to the role of secretary, all the while with Bond snarking (supposedly sexily) about how he’ll now ‘feel safer’ that she’s out of the field. But he can talk – if one error in action was all it took to be a desk jockey, Bond would have been handing in his gun several films back.
Finally, of course, there’s the death of M. I’m a little conflicted about this, and think that, had there been fewer issues with the rest of the film’s treatment of women, it would be less problematic. Because M, of course, is not merely a cipher: played wonderfully by Judi Dench, she has successfully spanned the Brosnan/ Craig era, and never felt anything less than fully realised. She was introduced to illustrate that while Bond is and will always be, to some degree, an anachronism (and in an uncertain and ever-changing world, his ‘dinosaur’ ways hold an eternal appeal) the arena he operates in has evolved. Now she, too, has been outdated by the political realities of the 21st century world, and her death seems noble, her life having been so thoroughly chipped away at by petty bureaucrats. But in having her die and replaced by Ralph Fiennes – with all the ‘posh boy from Eton’ airs he inevitably brings with him – this gives the film a sense of putting the men back in charge, where they should be: of resetting Bond’s world firmly back into its boy’s own fantasy land. (It’s telling that the only other woman in authority we see is a petty, officious MP. Admittedly she is well-played by the magnificent Helen McCrory, but it’s hard not to read her role as more unwelcome feminine meddling in the masculine world).
Of course no one goes into James Bond movies expecting a feminist manifesto. Bond’s creator Fleming was famous for his dubious sexual politics (he was the writer, after all, who coined the phrase ‘the sweet tang of rape’ and claimed ‘all women love semi-rape’ – you get the feeling that he’d heartily approve of the shower scene). But in recent years Bond has successfully walked a line of keeping the ‘classic’ Bond ideas but transposing them into a more modern framework: a world where women can be successful spies, agents, thieves; where they can be bosses and badasses, not simply beauties. Skyfall keeps them shagged, silent and/or slain, or sticks them back behind desks where they can’t do real damage. In doing so, it feels like a film that isn’t simply paying homage to the past, but is desperate to go back there.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments. As ever, I’ll be back in a fortnight and you can pop over to my blog Body of a Geek Goddess. In a change to my usual plugging, this week I am plugging my new short story A Vampire Walks Into a Bar, available to download for a very reasonable price here (UK) and here (US).