Let me start by saying that this review will not contain any spoilers.
Fifty years ago this month, when Dr No exploded onto our screens, it changed the face of action movies forever, setting a blueprint of glamour, international travel and dramatic stunts that thrilled audiences worldwide. Somewhere along the way, however, the series began to lose its way and became almost a parody of itself, not helped by the popularity of Bond fan Mike Myers’s Austin Powers films.
And the action film found new ways to die, to quote Quantum of Solace’s theme tune. The Bourne movies set a style for faster-paced action sequences, with impressive, pulse-pounding chases and fights (using parkour and kali). The Dark Knight trilogy showed audiences that just because it’s an action film (and its hero is wearing a cape), it doesn’t mean it can’t be grounded in reality and have a dramatic, emotional heart. Both relied more on the actual execution of the stunts rather than achieving them with excessive amounts of CGI.
It looked as if Bond was finished. The the producers took a breath and decided to go back to the drawing board and try something new. Casino Royale brought 007 back to his literary roots and used the new techniques to mesmerising effect. It also gave us a Bond for our time, one who could carry off the deadly side of the assassin’s job, one who looked like he could handle himself, but could also give flesh to Bond’s bones. I wasn’t a great fan of the decision to cast Daniel Craig, but with each of the three films, he’s given an astonishing performance and now you can’t imagine anyone else in the role.
In Quantum of Solace, the films seemed to lose their way again: a little too dark, the plot a little too complicated and obscure, the action blunted by too many jumpy cross-cuts. When you have someone who is as able to handle the stunts as Mr Craig is, you don’t need to keep cutting away – let us see him.
Recommended videos for you
And now with Skyfall, the producers have taken a bigger gamble and it has worked brilliantly. The action film has grown up and this will set a new (high) bar for what follows it. The acclaimed theatre and film director Sam Mendes was a surprising choice to helm the 23rd film in the franchise, but his experience and talent for characterisation and emotion bring new depths to the Bond series and give the actors room to really go for it.
Indeed, this film seems to have Oscar-winning and nominated actors and technicians, like Mr Mendes, coming out of its ears and the result is something truly beautiful and assured. Nine times Oscar nominee Roger Deakins’s cintematogaphy is simply breathtaking, especially in the Macau and Shanghai sequences. John Logan has proven he can do epic in films such as Gladiator, but his screenplay here – written with old 007 hands Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – leavens the drama with humou without cheapening a moment of it.
As for the actors, Javier Bardem is a little camp but one of the most dangerous foes Bond has ever faced, someone who doesn’t want world domination but who wants something much more personal. Judi Dench gives a tour de force performance, finally getting us to show all the facets of M. And she has wonderful chemistry with Mr Craig, whose Bond this time round is very world-weary and not quite ready for what he must face. Although this is an 007 that is still ready with a quip, he definitely has a heart and Mr Craig isn’t afraid to show it in both his face and his eyes. New Q Ben Wishaw is a delight and we look forward to seeing more of him. They’re supported admirably by Rory Kinnear, Ralph Fiennes and Helen McCrory, who enjoys getting her teeth into M as a particularly testy politican. Naomi Harris sparks well off Mr Craig, but the final revelation about her character was, for me, extremely disappointing.
The locations are all used well, from the rooftop motorbike chase in Istanbul to Shanghai’s neon wonders. Some may be disappointed that the film is primarily set in Britain, accustomed as we are to 007’s glamourous globe-hopping, but we should remember that, for much of the audience, London is very intriguing and glamorous and Scotland supplies a cold beauty for the finale (appropriate for this weekend’s falling temperatures).
Look out for one of the most beloved ‘characters’ of the Bond series, which plays a key role (and provides one of the funniest lines in the film).
One of the best parts of a Bond film for me has always been its credit sequence and its theme. Once they became computer generated, they seemed to have lost some of their magic, but those for Skyfall are clever, witty and simply beautiful, matching perfectly Adele’s soaring voice.
All in all, a complete triumph, albeit probably a little long. I’m going to see it tomorrow at the Imax, where it should look all the more stunning.
* Follow Country Life Magazine on Twitter