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Skyfall - review

Daniel Craig has relaxed into Bond without losing any steeliness.

Skyfall (12A)
dir: Sam Mendes

If the first two films in Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond adopted a new broom approach, the mood of Skyfall is very much “out with the old, in with the old”. Nostalgia permeates the movie. “I like to do things the old-fashioned way,” says Bond, while several characters deliver the film’s mission statement: “Sometimes the old ways are the best.” Humour makes a comeback, which is good news for anyone who rightly cherishes Bond’s use of alligators as stepping stones in Live and Let Die, as do familiar figures including Q (Ben Whishaw), the gadgets expert reborn as a boyish computer whizz. Q boasts of the upset he can cause sitting at his laptop in his pyjamas, which may or may not be a Chatroulette joke.

Craig has relaxed into Bond without losing any steeliness. He still looks like a dented bullet with bat ears: appearing at the home of his MI6 boss, M (Judi Dench), he is as recognisable in silhouette as Mickey Mouse. M is being plagued by a terrorist who has access to the identities of MI6’s undercover operatives and is taunting her about past sins. It looks like Bond is in for the shock experienced by any child upon discovering that their mother had a life predating parenthood.

M turns out to be rather like the heroine of a Victorian melodrama who has put up her baby for adoption: while stationed in Hong Kong before the handover, she surrendered to China an agent of hers, Silva (Javier Bardem), who had antagonised the Chinese government. His new family gave him enough material for an entire shelf of misery memoirs and now he is determined to make Mummy face up to her mistakes. He destroys buildings and derails trains, which is an extreme way of handling abandonment issues. At least Bond now has a long-lost brother, sort of. He and Silva have a lot of catching up to do and obviously it would be nicer if this could take place without Bond being tied to a chair, but then no family is perfect.

Bond can certainly feel secure in the knowledge that he is M’s golden boy. Even Silva’s name is obscurely reassuring: silver, secondbest, second place on the podium. But Bond knows that what happened to Silva could happen to him too. No wonder he pulls out the stops to dazzle M. The final third of the film is taken up with Bond organising what anyone with siblings will know is a luxury beyond compare: quality time alone with Mum. Bond even wheels out the Aston Martin DB5 in her honour. She’s his special girl.

Silva can’t match that. He dyed his hair platinum, presumably to advertise kinship with his white-haired matriarch, but M would have seen through that even if his exotic, florid Spanish accent hadn’t given him away. Judi Dench has already been seen this year in J . Edgar as a matriarch disapproving of her gay son, and something of that feeds into M. Perhaps Silva’s mistake was expecting Mother to love him, whatever his preferences. In sanctioning at the start of the film a shot that almost kills Bond, M proves that her allegiance is to the family (ie Britain), rather than to its individual components. Anyone is disposable so long as the family endures. Even Bond has to learn that. In a psychological examination, he responds to the word “country” with “England”, but redeems himself partially by choosing Scotland as the site of a showdown with Silva.

Sam Mendes has not yet distinguished himself as a film-maker, but he brings to Skyfall some visual touches to support the theory that it could have been called All About My Mother (if Pedro Almodóvar, another exotic, florid Spaniard, hadn’t got there first). Bond’s crumbling family home in the Scottish highlands has a Bates Motel eeriness to it, while the first shot from the foot of its staircase mirrors Hitchcock’s camera in Psycho. It’s significant, in that context, that Bond’s only love scene involves him creeping unannounced into a shower. His only love scene with a woman, that is. Like Norman Bates, Bond has a side to him to which Mother is oblivious. Could it really be true, as he suggests to Silva in the film’s most highly-charged scene, that he has known the heat of another man’s weapon? Mum’s the word.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten