Saturday, 27 October 2012

Film Review: Skyfall (2012)

Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan
Stars: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench and Javier Bardem

Skyfall is without doubt the year’s best big budget, high profile film. The reasons why it works so well as both a piece of entertainment and as an entry into the James Bond series are no different from why any other film is a success, namely the four critical components: Story, Character, Editing, Acting. If the film makers can get those four components right, then everything else should fall into place. Skyfall gets them right and gets them right in a way which has yet again raised the bar for the Bond franchise.

The story of Skyfall had to be something special to both help remove the memories of 2008’s frustratingly inadequate Quantum of Solace and at the same time celebrate the 50th anniversary of James Bond on film. The actual plot of the film is not particularly gripping but is thankfully simple and in being so it allows the characters to take centre stage without leaving the audience wondering what exactly is going on. Three-time Oscar nominated screenwriter John Logan has written a script which looks at character-led motivations and Skyfall shows a Bond who has lost his edge and has chosen to remove himself from the espionage game. It has an M who has a past which can no longer be hidden and the consequences of treating real people as expendable assets; it takes us back to Bond’s heritage and beginings and takes both Bond and M back to a time and place we can never share but has shaped both their lives forever. On top of this, it features a villain whose very motivation is led by incidents of the past. In this Bond film, a lifetime of actions have their consequences.

More than in any of the other films, Skyfall is about the people and their place in one another’s lives both past and present and not about setting up the next action scene. Moreover, whereas Quantum of Solace was nothing but action and Casino Royale featured three huge and spectacular action sequences, Skyfall is relatively light on all-out action and there are long periods between set pieces. It must be said that none of the action scenes in Skyfall can compare to the standard set by Casino Royale, but very few films which have been released since Casino Royale can.

Sam Mendes is arguably the most high-profile director to helm a Bond film, in no small part for his Best Director win at the 1999 Academy Awards, and his control of the camera and understanding of storytelling is evidenced throughout the 146 minute running time. Mendes does not try to cheat the audience with ‘shakycam’ or angles which make no sense but rather he allows the audience to take in what they’re watching and savour every last detail. The scene which is exemplary of his command behind the camera is in the introduction of the villain Raoul Silva where he enters in the background and slowly walks towards Bond, who is positioned in the extreme foreground. This is a one take shot which allows Silva to deliver a character-defining speech whilst growing bigger and bigger in statue as the words form their menacing conclusion. So simple yet so effective.

All the cast are on top form (with the exception of one which will be mentioned later) and the addition of Ralph Fiennes in what could be a recurring presence in future films was a stroke of genius by the casting department. A special mention must go to Javier Bardem as the aforementioned Raoul Silva for he commands every scene he is in with a sensationally psychotic yet controlled performance as the mentally scarred ex-spy. His work here is deserving of a Best Supporting Actor nomination and is the standout performance of the year to date.

The real stars of the picture, however, are cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Stuart Baird. Deakins’ work on Skyfall is truly Oscar worthy and without any exaggeration this is the best looking Bond film to date; from the neon colours and the use of shadows in Shanghai to the golden red and orange in Macau, to the misty moors in Scotland, the always glamorous locations of any Bond picture have never been photographed as expertly as this. Quite simply this is exemplary cinematography for any film, let alone a franchise high for Bond, and help set Skyfall apart from any other film this year. As for Stuart Baird, his name being associated with any film ensure that, in the very least, the story will be edited in a way which does not pander to those with two-second attention spans. Unlike many action films of late, he does not rely on a cut every other second to tell a story and has helped make such films as Superman: The Movie, Lethal Weapon, and indeed Casino Royale into the genre milestones which they are.

Sam Mendes’ Skyfall is still very much a Bond film despite the talent involved elevating it into something else which is so far removed from many of the other 22 films, it would be a crime to even associate many of them with this. Q makes a return to the series and with it a suggestion that he won’t be taking the series back to the days of crocodile suits and exploding pens (which is directly referred to) and Bond once says his famous introductory line which was shamefully omitted in the last film. The film even goes back to its roots with the inclusion of Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger and by firing those legendary machine guns from the headlights, you get a real sense that Bond wants to be back here and not in an invisible car or one which can work underwater.

The film is nearly perfect but there are a few minor criticisms; crushingly, the first thing I hoped to see in this (or any) Bond film was not seen and that remains a real disappointment as it marks a lost tradition. The worst thing in the film by a huge margin is the wooden and never believable Naomie Harris who, unfortunately, has a pivotal role in the opening sequence and really lets the scene down regardless of what she’s doing. Javier Bardem by contrast is so brilliant that his limited screen time (he isn’t seen for the first hour) is something of a waste because great villains are so rarely seen anymore.

It was suggested early in this review that the action scenes did not live up to the series best of Casino Royale and are if anything, too grounded after the opening sequence where as Casino Royale and others such as the Bourne franchise have complemented thrills and non-stop excitement with story and character too. This is more of an observation than a criticism because Skyfall is far from dull.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: Skyfall has surpassed the high standards it has set for itself and is Bond and big budget film-making at its very best.

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