Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, producers of the James Bond films, cannot be accused of under ambition. The creative team assembled to work on Skyfall is perhaps the most illustrious in the long history of the series.
After the, frankly, mixed reception that his last three features – the dull Jarhead, the interesting-but-flawed Revolutionary Road and the irritating, self-consciously quirky Away We Go – received, assuming the controls of a big-budget blockbuster seems like a sure-fire way for Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes to get his career back on track.
Mendes, who has made a point of re-reading the original Fleming novels, certainly talks a good game. “I’ve always wanted to do a thriller and an action movie, and Bond’s roots are in the thriller, rather than the action movie,” he states. “The Fleming novels are thrillers rather than action-packed adventures, and there was something in that which was very attractive.”
After the near-universal praise his debut performance in Casino Royale received, Daniel Craig – much like his many predecessors in the role – has struggled to translate his appeal as Bond into the context of other roles in different films.
Craig’s most memorable recent role aside from 007, as crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist in David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, drew positive reviews, but it also resulted in below-par box office takings. This is a worrying indicator that Craig may not be such a big box office draw after all.
The producers, however, remain convinced that he is the correct man for the role. “Daniel has been a terrific Bond, a superb actor and a terrific man,” says Wilson. “The fans love him and I don’t think there’s a better actor to play the part.” Wilson has spoken of extending Craig’s contract beyond its rumoured three-film scope (which would expire with Skyfall), and has even spoken of the possibility of Craig surpassing Roger Moore’s record seven-film tenure as 007.
Thankfully, Craig hasn’t been talking like a man who is ready to relinquish the role. “Sam [Mendes] is a huge Bond fan, and has been all his life,” he says. “He and I both said to each other at the beginning, that the only thing we want to do is make the best James Bond movie we can. Therefore, we have to go back to what we know about the books and what we know about the movies, and we need to improve on it.”
Skyfall has the most accomplished set of supporting actors ever assembled for a Bond film. Oscar-winning Spanish actor Javier Bardem tops the roster as the main villain, Silva.
After the underwhelming villainy of Mathieu Amalric last time around, it is hoped that Bardem might prove a more credible physical threat to Craig’s Bond. If he can translate even a fraction of the terrifying menace he brought to his role as Anton Chigurh in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men to Skyfall, then Bardem could prove a memorable addition to the Bond villain hall of fame.
Perhaps the most intriguing additions to the cast are noted English actors Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, who have seven Oscar nominations between them. Fiennes, who has sporadically been linked with the role of Bond himself over the past 15 years or so, has often stated his admiration for Ian Fleming’s original novels, and rumour has it that he was such a massive childhood fan, he engraved the number 007 into his school desk. “I used to be a complete nerd about the books and the detail in them,” he admits. “They are fantastic.
There was Fleming’s obsession with different kinds of champagne and caviar. He kind of fetishizes these things.” Fiennes has admitted that there was a time in his life when playing Bond would have appealed to him, but instead he will have to be content with a mysterious role as a government agent.
Internet rumours – fuelled by speculation that his character’s name is Gareth Mallory – suggest that he might ultimately prove to be Dame Judi Dench’s successor as M. Finney’s role, possibly as the Bond family estate’s caretaker, is also shrouded in mystery, with the character name Kincade a possibility.
Aside from the imaginative and daring casting of Fiennes and Finney, I must confess that I harbour serious doubts about some of the other casting in Skyfall. Judi Dench returns for her seventh appearance as the head of MI6; her casting represents impressive longevity and attention to continuity, although she is still well shy of Bernard Lee’s 11-film run. Nevertheless, I remain unconvinced of her suitability for the role, and have long grown weary of the over-played ‘mother-son’ dynamics of her relationship with Bond.
Further controversy has surrounded the scope and identity of the Bond girl role, filled by English actress Naomie Harris, whose character has been confirmed as a field agent named Eve.
Harris has wittily described Eve thus: “She sees herself as Bond’s equal. She’s not, but that’s how she sees herself!” Harris has also denied the frequent media whispers that Eve is actually a re-imagining of the Miss Moneypenny character, missing from the series since Die Another Day.
Despite her good looks and admirable willingness to throw herself into the physical demands of the role, I’m still not sure whether Harris possesses the necessary charisma (or acting ability) to prove a memorable Bond girl, having always found her a rather limited and wooden performer.
French actress Bérénice Marlohe has been cast as Severine, the second tier Bond girl. Given her lack of English-language acting experience, Marlohe’s casting seems somewhat out of kilter with the excellence of the rest of the cast. One internet blogger, on the basis of just one video interview, has already rather cruelly dismissed her as, “from the Denise Richards school of acting”.
I don’t share some Bond traditionalists’ alarm at the casting of the highly watchable and talented Ben Whishaw as Q. The popularity of Desmond Llewelyn in the role is impossible to match, and it would be foolhardy to attempt to foist a similar conception of the role upon another actor – as John Cleese discovered to his cost!
Considering that Q is largely an invention of the movies anyway, rather than Fleming himself, I see no fidelity issues in re-imagining the role for a younger actor – particularly one with Whishaw’s quirky charm.
In final analysis, no matter how impressive the cast of Skyfall is on paper, the most crucial component in the film’s ultimate success or failure will always be the plot and the screenplay.
According to Wilson, Skyfall will not feature the villainous Quantum organisation that appeared in the previous two Bond films; instead, the film looks more focused on the inner workings of MI6, and it’s set to be more of a political thriller than we are accustomed to.
The majority of location filming so far has taken place in London, in areas such as Vauxhall, Tower Hill and Whitehall, while Bardem, interestingly, has been spotted with his character in disguise as a London policeman sporting long blond hair.
Location work in Turkey and Shanghai has also taken place, while major action sequences look set to include a train sequence in Turkey (possibly based on one originally planned for inclusion in GoldenEye), a foot chase involving the London Underground (shades of an abandoned sequence from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and a motorbike sequence across Istanbul rooftops.
Apparently Skyfall will also delve further into Bond’s past and family history than ever before, as well as M’s past and background. For example, leaked information and photographs from filming in Glencoe, Scotland, have revealed that a significant part of the film will take place in the Bond family’s Scottish estate, Skyfall Lodge.
Photographs from the Glencoe set have also revealed that Bond family gravestones form a backdrop to portions of this sequence (including those of Bond’s parents Andrew Bond and Monique Delacroix Bond), adding weight to the theory that the film may explore Bond’s past and childhood in detail.
Aside from a brief reference to his parents’ death that was shoehorned, somewhat awkwardly, into GoldenEye (and a rather more skilful and adroit reference to his status as an orphan in Casino Royale), Bond’s childhood scars, caused by his parents’ deaths, have never been explored on film. Interestingly, this was a subject that Fleming himself also shied away from, restricting any detailed reference to Bond’s ancestry to the obituary chapter in You Only Live Twice. Charlie Higson’s Young Bond novels attempted, with mixed success, to fill in the gaps that Fleming was unwilling to plug.
It’s quite likely that Fleming felt his readers weren’t especially interested in Bond’s past (the modern obsession with back stories certainly wasn’t a feature of 1950s or 1960s genre fiction). For me, the danger with too much back story in a Bond film is that it removes the mystery and enigmatic quality that has been such an essential factor in the huge success of the character. Fleming realised that Bond needed a human dimension, but also that a lack of detailed knowledge of Bond’s past and background enabled him to be a much more compelling character – someone who we could project our own fantasies and theories on.
It’s fair to say that the best Bond films possess a human dimension, but it is there to enhance and add colour to the main thrill of the narrative, rather than to act as the main narrative drive itself. Striking the correct balance between glamour, grit and humour is something that the Bond series has often struggled to achieve post-1969. Truth be told, of the 16 Bond films made since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I’d contend that only three (the duo starring Dalton and Craig’s Casino Royale) are deserving of the label ‘Bond classics’.
So, what then are the odds that Skyfall will join the exalted ranks of the best of Bond films of all time? To be honest, I seriously doubt it. Although the synopsis for the film is brief and devoid of much in the way of detail, the bare-bones description of the plot does not, for me, augur well. Ultimately, Skyfall will stand or fall on Sam Mendes’ ability to adapt to the action cinema genre and the strength of the screenplay.
Regardless of its quality, in terms of potential box office returns, Skyfall has little to fear. Both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace easily surpassed the $500 million (Dh1.9 billion) mark in worldwide receipts, and there is no evidence to suggest that Skyfall won’t match or surpass them.
With such massive commercial prospects, I can only hope that my doubts about the film’s potential artistic merits are proved incorrect, and that Skyfall turns out to be a Bond film truly worthy of Craig’s considerable talent and the franchise’s 50th birthday.