Roland Barthes liked Bond narratives. He wrote a long and engaging essay about their structural form. He also liked Carry On movies, so we shouldn’t get carried away, but Barthes’ appreciation is a pointer to the fact that Bond could be seen as the closest thing to an existential hero (or anti-hero) British popular culture has ever produced. Bond inhabits his own moral universe, where society’s rules do not apply. In part this is because he works for the British secret service, with its dubious ethics, but it also has to do with his perception of the world. A perception that might be said to originate in a jaundiced perspective engendered by having to be oneself in spite of the British class system, something that drives him towards his default loner condition. (It might be worth noting that Fleming’s background has plenty in common with those of Philby, Maclean and Le Carre.) In order to escape the torpid Whitehall world, he effectively goes rogue, even if that’s something which the system seeks to integrate to its advantage. Bond’s tragic flaw is not that he is a defender of the British faith (ie that he is a servant to the notion of ‘duty’ even if that proves to be to his detriment); but that no matter how much he indulges and exerts his individuality (in the role of the outsider) his talents and his soul, what remains of it, will always be appropriated by the state he works for.
All of which explains why Bond is such a fascinating fictional creation: a brilliant expression of the tension between individuality and the demands of society/ the state. Bond cannot escape his Britishness, but he will go as far as he can in order not to be tied down by the rules decreed by his nationality. Hence his pervasive and engaging cynicism.
Skyfall’s lachrymose denial of all of the above is an indicator of how conservative British society (and filmmaking) has become over recent decades. It’s a far cry from the character Connery once made his own. Skyfall seems to do everything to locate Bond within a narrative of renascent colonial glory. The depiction of Dench-as-M-as-quasi-Queen (reinforced by the now-famous Olympics stunt) to whom Bond is devoted, and who has become a maternal figure in his life, distorts his whole relationship with the state. The new Bond is a loyal and devoted soldier whose acquiescence to authority negates his anarchistic streak. (Shown to be destructive and narcissistic as he downs scorpion-laced shots in the tropics.) M herself is viewed in a turgid shot, reminiscent of the most depressing Hollywood cinema-as-propaganda, in front of coffins draped in Union Jacks. M is then given the job of defending her agency’s role in modern global politics, embellishing the notion of the importance of Britain retaining a telling military presence in the new global game. This argument and these images reflect Britain’s recent and continued role as military adventures, something much of the new world finds hard to swallow, as though we still lived in the post-war global matrix that Fleming himself inhabited, when European wars determined the planet’s fate.
Does any of this matter? If Mendes and co want to turn Bond into an apologist for British foreign policy, where’s the aesthetic problem? The trouble is, in terms of creating an effective Bond movie, it matters a lot. This is an emasculated Bond, whose beauty is purloined along with his cynicism. Rather than defining himself in existential struggle against a ferocious opponent, the yin to his yan, he’s defined by his patriotism and servility. This is not what we want need or want from Bond and ultimately leads to an increasingly dull and over-extrapolated narrative. After the impressive opening sequence, the movie flatlines, when it is not rescued by Deakins’ cinematographic flair. We are presented with an asexual, ascetic Bond who finds no real pleasure in life. The closest we get is a muted homoerotic hint in a relationship with Bardem which is more flirtatious than threatening. Where the villain should be Bond’s alter-ego, the evidence of anarchic power untrammelled, here his relationship with Bardem is muted and fraternal. They are two sons of Empire, only the one with the Spanish accent really didn’t fit in. The portrayal of Bardem’s character feels desperately contrived and the assault on Whitehall so mundanely implausible, and cheap, that it makes us realise the worth of real implausibility in the Bond narratives, where villains have powers beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Both Bardem and Bond have been betrayed by Empire, and whereas one is happy to take his medicine, the other has become slightly peeved and even more Oedipal. This converts M into the central character, as though someone handed the scriptwriters the section from the bible marked “jeopardy” and they have valiantly tried to crowbar it into a narrative that doesn’t require it. With the effect of turning Skyfall into cheap melodrama, when M’s maternal role is emphasised by the decision to return to his parents’ home for one of the least spectacular dénouements in the Bond franchise. This is the froth that comes from trying to devise a narrative with an emasculated hero (in much the same way as happened in Quantam of Solace). The close-cropped Craig is a shorn Samson: in a conservative society, there’s no room for mavericks. The Bonds of this dull world have to learn to fill in their forms, curtsey to their superiors, tug their forelocks and iron out their anarchic muscles.
Here are some of the things we don’t need to know about Bond:
We don’t need to know about his parents or his upbringing.
We don’t need to know he has an Oedipal relationship with M.
We don’t need to know that he’s capable of emotion.
We don’t need to know that he has a matey relationship with his parents’ former gillie.
We don’t need to know about his politics or those of the organisation he works for.
We don’t need to know that he’s capable of nostalgia.
We definitely don’t need to know that he’s a patriot.
Here are some of the things we require from a Bond film:
A charismatic villain with an outrageous if potentially convincing motivation for their villainy.
Imaginative use of dramatic action sequences.
An ahistorical perspective (history being the playground within which Bond frolicks).
A clearly demonstrated lack of respect for authority, towards both his superiors and his enemies.