The James Bond films are fantasies that have entertained generations of both genders. The clever gadgets, glamorous international backdrops, Bond's dry wit and the simple evil of the villains have crafted a brand of escapism as other-worldly as the Harry Potter franchise. But after 22 films, the fantasy had become repetitive and irrelevant to modern audiences. It is not just the character of Bond that could be accused of being “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the cold war”, as Judi Dench's levels at him in her first appearance as M. Despite this brief nod to progression (and reality – Stella Rimmington being director general of MI5 at the time), and a greater emotional sensitivity in Bond under Daniel Craig, the whole franchise had failed to evolve.
It was in the presence of women within Bond that the films had become most antiquated. Clinging to their 1950's origins, their questionable status as 'man's films' had seemed to justify a fantasy of an unfamiliar masculine world. One where men generally dominate the workplace, and where women appear only occasionally, as provocative objects to be seduced by Bond, and be sent to the bedroom where they are meant to feature. This is not the world that the audience – both male and female – recognise. Men and women feature equally in our lives, in a whole range of relationships beyond the sexual. This fantasy, so distant from our present, has undermined all of the recent Bond films. That is, until Skyfall. Suddenly, Sam Mendes has directed a film that brings Bond bursting back from the brink of extinction.
Skyfall is such an effective film precisely because, released on the 50th anniversary of Bond, it is acutely self-conscious of this need not only to celebrate it's past, but to establish a place for Bond in the present. It very deliberately brings our iconic British dinosaur up to date. Still clothed in the glossy glamour of the Bond universe, the MI6 of Skyfall is one where computers have more power than a gun, and where enemies wage war in cyberspace. It is no longer an isolated institution, but one that has to answer to politicians and government enquiries. “A brave new world” as Bond remarks when sent off on his mission armed simply with a gun and a radio. Daniel Craig is an ageing Bond in an occupation that favours youth. But he is also a personification of the whole franchise, and in his experience we see a very clear statement of intent from the filmmakers. Sitting side-by-side with an unshaven Bond in the National Gallery, the new, fresh-faced Q (played brilliantly by Ben Whishaw) looks on a painting. “Almost makes me feel a bit melancholy, a grand old warship being ignominiously hauled away for scrap. The inevitability of time, don't you think.” he says. Skyfall honours Bond's past, but it is also a departure from it.
Perhaps one of the main progressions is in 007 himself. As a modern audience we no longer seek uncompromising displays of macho heterosexuality. Accordingly Skyfall plays with the serial-shagger legacy of Bond. Not only can he handle the brilliant hint of homosexuality with which Javier Bardem plays his villain, but to Silva's taunts that having a male sexual encounter must be an unusual experience for him, he retorts “what makes you think this is my first time?”. Modern conceptions of masculinity also require on-screen male leads to have an emotional intensity. Skyfall takes further the tentative attempts of Casino Royale in this respect. His character is allowed the complexity to feel betrayed, to capture the sense of a lost past, and worry about an ageing body. He even sheds a tear! Though, naturally, he still flexes his muscles and has wrestling matches on the top of moving trains.
Yet, it is the way that women feature in Skyfall that gives most credit to the advances of modern masculinity. Remarkably, Bond's sex life features very little in Skyfall, overshadowed by the friendship and loyalty to M that consumes most of the film. That a woman takes such a prolonged part, in a role in which she is not a sex-object, is quite revolutionary for the franchise. Even in his flirtation with Eve, a fellow field agent, the tone seems to have changed for the better. There has sometimes been a disturbing domineering edge to Bond's sexual relationships with women. 'Bond girls' - whatever their ability to fight, to spy, to use their charms to their own ends – all inevitably succumb to the magnetic charms of Bond, however reluctant they might first appear. Here, their flirtation is gentler, there is a more comedic exchange in place of the expectation of sexual conquest, and there is a matched respect and confidence. Indeed when Eve first appears she is allowed to do so in a purely professional capacity, while wearing jeans and a shirt. For someone who, as a child playing James Bond Playstation games with my brother, was constantly annoyed that the only two female avatars were dressed in a leather bikini and a catsuit, this was a small but happy victory.
Skyfall has brought Ian Fleming's James Bond charging into our 'brave new world' in spectacular style. If the franchise remains here, the best of Bond may yet be ahead of us. The ending to Skyfall doesn't fill me with confidence that it will, but we will see. In the meantime, however, I am content to accept Skyfall as a ridiculously entertaining peak in British spy films. There is something about seeing Daniel Craig pound through a London underground station and leap onto the back of a dull day-time tube that defines escapism. When he stops exhaustingly chasing everyone around, the film's dialogue has the perfect blend of intelligence, wit and gravity. By the time Bond reaches Scotland, Skyfall has become transfixing and beautifully atmospheric. I will be jogging into town to buy the DVD as soon as it is released. Though perhaps not quite as energetically as Bond.
Images via Offical Skyfall Website