Not really a review post, this, since my main response to Skyfall has been to find I’m oddly sobered and mentally absorbed by it.
I remember a summer somewhere in my late childhood when we lived without carpets downstairs for several months; the house had flooded in the spring sometime, and thanks to a protracted wrangle with the insurance company we spent July and August with bare concrete floors. I spent much of this summer holed up in the living room, heavy velour curtains drawn (and not yet shredded by the cats we would later rescue from a life spent in a shed in Somerset), watching old Bond films. I remember the concrete floor because of the way the dust would rise from it when I drummed my feet at the excitement of the car chases, settling in a thin film over everything.
I remember watching Timothy Dalton wield a cello on a sled in The Living Daylights, Roger Moore (Roger Mortis) romancing his conquest in a space capsule in Moonraker, the blow-dried archetype of a 1980s body-fascist murdering a man with his Walkman cable in View to a Kill. I remember cheap jokes, frothy sexism, and the gentle sadness of the theme songs; they seemed to express a femininity that reached out for what Bond symbolised, but could never quite touch.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love Daniel Craig’s Bond. In much the same way that I loved Christopher Eccleston as Doctor Who; Craig brings grit and darkness to the character, suggestions of emotional shadow, a far more psychologically real hero than the empty vessels that were the Bonds of my youth.
But Skyfall troubles me. It could be so much, in terms of the way it comments on masculinity, and yet it winds up being oddly hollow. Visually, yes, it’s great – the opening chase sequence transported me back to that stuffy, darkened living room, rapt on an ugly sofa with a buttered cream cracker forgotten in my hand. The opening credits are a perfect microcosm of the whole film, too: a hallucinogenic blend of blood-and-body realism, symbolic shapes which hint at Bond’s complex psychology, and the dancing cipher-women of the carefree past.
But then there’s the villain. Played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem (sporting a truly dreadful bleach job), he is portrayed as an unstable master manipulator and disaffected former secret agent, who just happens to be gay and to have colossal attachment issues towards Judi Dench’s M. The character grates on my nerves in exactly the same way the Moriarty of BBC’s Sherlock did. Evil as exaggerated femininity – but only in men. Gender. Masculinities. Femininity in men is still not OK. Bardem’s character is abusive and using towards women? Simple, it’s not sexism, it’s just him. Excuses, excuses; dear old Bond must be shoehorned into our new post-feminist reality, but it’s fine since we can all still hate on the gays.
There’s a scene in the movie which has had fandom in paroxysms, where the villain flirts quite openly with Bond. Bardem remarks that there’s a first time for everything, and Craig replies “What makes you think this is my first time?”. I was intrigued to see that scene; but when I did, it was just the same old rubbish. Daniel Craig radiated heterosexual discomfort throughout it, an excellent job of acting and completely intentional I have no doubt. He delivers that line as a verbal feint, a blow in a fencing match; and it works, ironically enough, as if Bond’s sexual magnetism really does remain unconquerable wherever the femininity it mystically attracts is found. But then that in itself is a trope of the old Bond, the fantasy man who is little more than a male version of the romance-novel heroine with her inexplicable yet overwhelming allure.
As the villain’s backstory came out I became less and less comfortable with the way it treated his sexuality, too. There but for the grace of God goes Bond, it said: take an orphan, make him a secret agent, give him unresolved mummy issues – and if he’s gay, well he’ll turn out to be a psychotic disaster area, naturally. If he’s straight? That’s when you get to be Daniel Craig. Films are escapism, remember; the audience is meant to self-insert. Great if your instinct is to self-insert into the intended character – not so great if you’re gay. Still the same old heterosexist Bond, then.
What I’m rooting for in Daniel Craig’s future Bond films is to see someone on the British side turn out gay. And not just that, but at home with his own femininity. Q, perhaps, that pitch-perfect modern man (the cardigan! Oh, the cardigan!), at ease in a world of technology that bemuses the aging Bond. One of the other 00 agents, maybe; or even just a stroke of background colour, a reunion between partners as Bond takes the limelight again. I’d like to see Moneypenny break the somewhat strained “It’s OK Because I Chose A Desk Job” harness as well – perhaps as an ex-field agent and an icon of that femininity that complements men instead of opposing them, she could now and then turn up to shoot the bad guy just as Bond’s really getting in over his head. And prove to have known better all along, of course.
But sexuality aside, Skyfall is a film that analyses both Bond the character and masculinity the concept in the context of a changing modern world. And it’s there that the ultimate hollowness lies, for me. Skyfall doesn’t offer a solution, a space in this new world for guys to be guys where it’s all OK. It slides back to a simple reaffirmation that the old way is still the right one really; that once you’ve got over your mummy issues and killed the hyperfeminine dependence in yourself (“the old fashioned way”, without having to use a bullet to do it), somehow mystically everything will fall into place. Ralph Fiennes will turn out to be the dad you always wished for, your love interest will decide to let you take charge after all, and everything will turn out just peachy in the end.
I don’t think the world we have is like that, and I’m not certain Bond is a character who can truly adapt. One of the greatest problems modern men seem to have is the lack of exactly the type of father-figures Ralph Fiennes’s character comes to represent; the generation above mine, those men who were mature in the 60s, 70s and 80s, are as shaken by the upheavals of society as we are – and if anything, more guilt-ridden and less equipped to cope than their sons. And women are not exactly showing signs of deciding that the desk job is for them. Skyfall becomes wishful thinking at that point; an escape not into how the world could be, but into how we wish that it might be. How ironic that such a film should be produced in a time when Britain is suffering under exactly that kind of enforced delusionalism, courtesy of its first Tory government in over a decade.
Do I agree that there must and should be a place in this world for men to sanely, responsibly bond with one another – and in so doing, grow as men? Yes, of course. But do I believe that this film points the way to that? No, 007. Much like the Tories I don’t think you’ve quite got the point. And it’s strange how much I really wish you had.