This is the best structured of the Bond films. Everything is about Bond and M's relationship, and so the script gets tenser with each passing scene as a result, with Mendes's direction and Roger Deakins's cinematography rising to the occasion to complement it and create a distinct, elegiac tone. It's an action movie where the dialogue provides the most gripping scenes, like the marvellous moment where the series uses the word fuck for the first time. Much of this is also due to Judi Dench's screen presence. She's better used here than ever before, and the look on this great actress's face when the Mi6 headquarters blow up, as she faces Silva and as she believes she has ordered Bond's death in the name of duty - a look at once unrepentant, unyielding and yet aware of the terrible consequences of her actions - gives the scenes a sense of grandeur new to the series. Also of note in these scenes is the clever editing and sound mixing, as when the rain hitting the window M stares out of merges into the waterfall Bond descends into, and the sound of the surf from Bond's next scene plays over the end of M's reaction to the MI6 explosion.
The film begins and closes brilliantly, with two of the series's most exciting sequences. The pre-credit sequence - matching character detail to action so perfectly, from M demanding that Bond leave Ronson to her climactic betrayal of 007, with a narrative that raises the stakes moment by moment, leading smoothly into Daniel Kleinman's exquisite title sequence - is yet more proof that no other films begin as well as Bond films. The climax is the stuff of legend, combining moments of great emotive-mythic pull - a return to Bond's childhood home, Bond learning to shoot again with his father's hunting rifle, the Aston Martin's reappearance and destruction, Bond losing M, the grave of Bond's parents, the priesthole where Bond hid following his parents' death and emerged no longer a boy, the catharsis of Skyfall's destruction, the grizzled gamekeeper who taught Bond to shoot and was there when he lost both his parents and most re-enact both of those roles again - with thrilling action, the most satisfying explosion in the entire series and gorgeous cinematography.
Why can't I love this movie, then? It's due to two stumbling blocks. To get a relatively pedantic concern out of the way first, the action in between the splendid opening and closing setpieces seems fudged to me. The window fight, gorgeously shot as it is, is too short. The casino fight is perfunctory.The shoot-out at the Inquiry ends on the tame note of Silva running away because Bond made a couple of fire extinguishers go off (visually, the sense of Silva being hemmed in during the shootout is not very well sold to the viewer, and the film has already established that Silva is on a suicide mission anyway.) The biggest problem is when Bond instantly disarms five henchman after Severine's death scene. It's simply impossible to understand why Bond didn't do this less than a minute earlier, and save Severine's life. He knows backup is arriving any moment, no-one is even pointing a gun at him when he first sees Severine tied up, and the thug who does hold a gun on him moves the barrel away from Bond's temple Into swatting distance before Silva has taken his shot. Again, a few different directorial decisions could have conveyed that Bond was unable to knock the gun trained on him out of the way, but the problem is also due to making Bond too powerful (there's a similar moment in Quantum of Solace when Bond is apprehended and led into a lift by three agents and instantly knocks them unconscious, which left me thinking, "if he can do that, where's the tension?).
The second concern is more troubling. Most of the sexism in the Bond series was phased out by the 1980s: the ghastly "man talk" and "you're very sweet" scenes in Goldfinger, the scene in From Russia with Love in which Bond is told the two gypsy girls are "both yours", the line "in Japan, men come first and women come second" in You Only Live Twice, the appalling treatment of Goodnight in The Man with the Golden Gun and Bond's irritating attitude towards Holly in Moonraker are all blemishes of a kind that don't affect the later films. However, there is a nasty, misogynistic trope present since Goldfinger which has remained right up to Skyfall: the Doomed Secondary Bond Girl. Examples include the Masterson sisters in Goldfinger, Andrea in The Man with the Golden Gun, Corinne in Moonraker, Paris in Tomorrow Never Dies, Solange in Casino Royale and Severine in Skyfall. There is no room for them in the film, so not only are they killed off, they are killed off with little regret in the screenplay. Bond never even learns of Corinne's death, and shows no emotion at those of Andrea, Solange and Severine. Although he shows some emotional at Jill and Paris's deaths, he has cheered up only a few moments later, and in real time (witness his flirtation with Moneypenny after brooding over Jill in front of M, and his chuckling over his reinflatable tyres as he escapes from the place where he cradled Paris's body).
Even creepier is that all of them are treated by the villains as their possessions, and as they are killed by them for daring to act or think outside this role, and the screenplays show no interest in avenging them (even when the villains are killed, the girls' deaths are not mentioned, which does give Quantum of Solace something of an edge), the films ultimately leave themselves ideologically aligned with this view. The enemy is female disobedience, female desire, female independence and female wistfulness (both Severine and Andrea die because they see Bond as a knight in shining armour, while Solange and Jill die because they are intrigued by him).
The villains' displays of how they punish this femininity is frequently exotic: Jill, Andrea, Corinne and Severine all have bizarre death scenes, and the bodies of all but Corinne are left on display for Bond and the audience. Goldfinger punishes Jill not just by killing her, but by turning her body into an erotic object. It's troubling to consider that the reason Shirley Eaton's gold-painted body has become one of the key images in cinema history is because it's a manifestation of misogyny: brilliant, inspired but deeply ugly in a moral sense.
So by the time we come to Skyfall, it's time for the series to do some serious thinking. It needs to interrogate, to challenge and to subvert the role of the Doomed Secondary Bond Woman. Instead it falls back on Bond Movie cliché, and kills her exactly as we'd expect. Particularly gratituous is the reference to Severine being sold into the Macau sex trade around the age of 12, a detail which should only be in the script if the writers are prepared to do it justice. Some have taken issue with Bond subsequently having sex with her, but this is a queasy argument which ironically betrays signs of prejudice - specifically, stigma against rape victims - itself: characters who have been abused have every right to enjoy sex. The sex scene between Bond and Severine is in no way ambiguous - we see Severine inviting Bond to her yacht, her waiting with champagne for two, her disappointment when he doesn't turn up, and her responding with warmth and no shock as he enters the shower (what seems to have wrongfooted some people is that Bond enters the yacht surreptitiously, but this is to get past her Silva-appointed guards, not to sneak up on Severine). No, the problem is not that Bond and Severine have sex, but the gratituitous reference to appalling sexual abuse in a script that has no subsequent interest in it or the character it inflicts this back story upon. It's particularly offensive when Berenice Marlohe is promoted, as actresses in Bond films always are, as a "Bond girl", so that audiences are set up to see her as an object of desire. It's not impossible that a Bond film could be written in which the male gaze is turned against itself (as in Mad Max: Fury Road) and the audience's conceptions of a Bond girl are challenged, but until a script that mature arrives, rape and sex trafficking are best avoided in this series.
Severine's death scene poses the same problem: it's been misunderstood in a few ways while remaining genuinely dubious. Bond's line "it's a waste of good scotch" is clearly meant as a moment of stark horror, similar to how his reaction to Solange's death in Casino Royale is played, with Bond demonstrating his ability to survive through emotional detachment and his refusal to give ground to Silva by expressing the exact opposite of what he's really feeling. Nevertheless, the film does forget about Severine, (the scene with Silva in custody mentions only the Mi6 agents he killed) as Casino Royale forgets about Solange, and ending the scene in which she is killed on the triumphant note of the Bond theme and Bond's quip about the radio gadget leaves a bad aftertaste. When the Aston Martin is destroyed, the fact that Bond didn't look that angry when Severine was killed is not something the audience are thinking of - that only strikes us as we leave the cinema. Severine plays no part in the imagery or the subtexts: it's all about Bond, M and Silva at that point. Quantum of Solace had the right idea, although it was diluted by a poorly sketched character and duff performance, in that it at least refused to let us forget Fields's murder, which was very much on Bond's mind when he took care of Greene. Berenice Marlohe gives a fine performance, conveying with great skill the sense of someone used to hiding their fear, and bringing Severine to life within just a few minutes, but she deserved better.
While they don't affect the film's artistic strengths and weaknesses, Skyfall's politics also feel regressive compared to Quantum of Solace. The film articulates an elegiac defence of the west, as seen in M's model bulldog, ("maybe it's her way of telling you to take a desk-job," says Moneypenny when the object is left to him in M's will: "Just the opposite," replies Bond), Bond standing like a sentinel on the rooftop at the end and M's reciting of Tennyson at the Inquiry. It's not surprising that the film appealed to right-wingers like James Ellroy. Skyfall turns M into a heroic figure, which is politically troubling in a way that Bond as a heroic figure isn't. Part of Bond's appeal with Left and Right alike is that he is a figure that doesn't exist in real life. No-one has a job like that in reality, and in the first 16 films it isn't even clear that he works for Mi6. He is a figure that owes as much to Arthurian Knights and Greek mythic heroes as he does to mid and late twentieth century politics, and his appeal lies more in what he tells about the potential of narrative than espionage, just as Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe have little to do with real-life detective work. When we reach GoldenEye, we're now explicitly told he works for Mi6. Making the head of Mi6 a heroic figure, and giving us scenes in which those calling her and her organisation to account are portrayed as buffoons (as seen in Skyfall and in Casino Royale) takes the series away from mythological territory and into right-wing politics.
Fortunately, Spectre goes in a different direction. But that's another blogpost...