My friend James linked me to an essay series that Film Crit Hulk at Badass Digest did last week analyzing all of the James Bond movies. It’s massive, and took me a couple days to read all the way through, but it was good. For anyone with a lot of spare time, I’d recommend giving it a look, particularly if you want to read about some good thoughts on cinematic storytelling (also, after the first ten thousand words or so you stop really noticing that it’s all in caps). Anyway, as is wont to happen when you spend a lot of time reading about a particular thing, I got an urge to experience that thing firsthand.
Fortunately, Netflix has my back and currently has the latest Bond flick on streaming, so I was able to scratch that itch. I had read through Hulk’s synopsis of Skyfall, so there were no real surprises about what was going to happen, but then, you don’t really watch a James Bond movie for the suspense.
Okay, basic impressions. This is a beautiful movie, and the story maintains good forward momentum. There was never a point where I thought things were getting dragged down (compared to Casino Royale, which I thought was a good movie, but it definitely felt like it was about half an hour too long). The three central characters, Bond, M, and the villain Silva, are well drawn with interesting relationships among them. The way the other two women in the film are portrayed is problematic (go figure), and the other side characters are fun, if kind of one note (Q’s a young tech genius who we’re supposed to disdain because he doesn’t think there’s much use in having field agents anymore, M’s assistant Tanner is likeable and bland, and Mallory, M’s boss, understands the pressure MI6 is getting from both sides while being generally disapproving of Bond’s continued deployment). The thematic threads dealing with the conflict between traditional spy methods and modern technology are anything but subtle, and while there might be some attempts at suggesting both ways are necessary, the audience is clearly intended to side with M and Bond’s way of thinking.
But above all, it’s a beautiful movie to watch.
Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be a good critique if I didn’t talk about how terribly this movie treats its female characters. M gets through alright, although it’s probably worth pointing out that Silva’s primary motivation is getting revenge on her, and in most counts he succeeds, even if he doesn’t live to see it (it kind of ruins the triumphal feeling of seeing Bond finally do Silva in when two minutes later we see that M was mortally wounded much earlier in the climax, and she’s been holding out just long enough to make it seem like Silva dying means that he’s lost).
More problematic than M though are the two younger female characters. The first is Eve Moneypenny, who in this version of Bond lore is a field agent who decides to transition to desk work after she accidentally shoots Bond on a mission. I suppose it’s fair for someone to decide that they’re not cut out for high risk work, but it seems contrived after we see the two working together on a separate mission where Moneypenny’s perfectly competent (maybe her decision to quit the field has to do with Bond’s absurdly forward attempt to undress her after she shows up to assist him with the aforementioned mission; I get that there’s supposed to be sexual tension between them, what with her shaving him, but his move to try to unbutton her shirt is just creepy). Of course, Moneypenny’s treatment is merely problematic in the sense that it follows a narrative about someone deciding they’re not well-suited to a certain kind of hard work, which is too commonly imposed on female characters. The other woman in the movie has it much worse.
So in Silva’s massive cyberterrorist organization, there’s a woman named Severine who’s some kind of middle management in his operations in Macau. She encounters Bond when he shows up at a fancy casino following a lead left by an assassin that Silva was using to take out undercover MI6 agents. She and Bond talk about how her bodyguards will kill him after she leaves, and he suggests that he can help her escape the organization instead. Also, out of the blue, Bond also correctly guesses that she must be a former child sex worker who joined up with Silva as a way to escape her old life, but found that she had fallen in with yet another controlling, abusive employer. It’s enough to persuade Severine to give Bond a chance, assuming he can survive her guards and get to her yacht before it leaves port.
Just take a guess at how this all plays out.
If you guessed that Bond escapes unscathed and meets her on her yacht where he proceeds to sneak up on her while she’s in the shower, then you’re correct. Just how tone deaf is this scene? You take the time to establish that Severine has a troubled past where she’s been stuck in a series of abusive sexual relationships, and the way you decide to jump into the obligatory “Bond gets sexy time in the middle of a high stakes mission” scene is have him sneak up on this woman in the shower? I don’t know what’s more jarring, the sheer rapey-ness of the setup or the fact that Severine acts like finding herself naked and cornered by a strange man in her shower is the biggest aphrodisiac ever.
This is not a scene that was constructed with any attention paid to the psychology of the characters involved. Well, it wasn’t constructed with the psychology of one of the characters in mind; I fully believe that James Bond would act like a rapist when it suits him.
Of course, it gets worse than this (we’ve not yet hit the bottom of the barrel). About fifteen minutes later, when Bond and Severine have been captured by Silva, we have a scene where Silva places a shot glass on Severine’s head and challenges Bond to a sharpshooting contest. Setting aside the damseling problem, there’s some good tension here, as it’s been established that Bond is not in great shape, and his marksmanship has really deteriorated. He misses his first shot, but doesn’t hit Severine, so that’s good. Of course, then Silva just shoots her himself, and she’s dead. Now, given the time spent establishing her tragic backstory, we might expect the movie to tip off that this is horrific and something worth being upset over. Instead, Bond throws a one-liner about wasting good scotch and takes out Silva’s henchmen before the cavalry shows up to capture him.
Yeah, we don’t even get a hint of remorse from Bond that he involved this woman in his plan and is responsible for her death. Severine ends up being treated as the worst kind of plot device, where all she does is demonstrate how perceptive, sexually proficient, and callous Bond is (or, more compactly, what a psychopath he is). The movie carries on from there, and we’re just supposed to forget about Severine’s part in the story.
And I just don’t know what to do with that. Like I said, everything about this movie aside from its treatment of its female characters is really entertaining stuff. The momentum keeps you engaged so that it’s not long before you kind of forget that that whole awful thing happened in this movie, but it’s still there. The ending’s honestly a lot of fun, but I just don’t feel really comfortable with the idea that we’re cheering for Bond to succeed here; when his only distinction from Silva is that he hasn’t blown any buildings up, it kind of puts a damper on things.
I suppose the best way forward is to just acknowledge that there’s a huge flaw in this movie. It show Bond doing really deplorable things to a woman, and doesn’t ask the audience to judge him for his behavior. In light of that, I guess we should remember to judge him, and not lose sight of the flaw, even as we praise the rest of the film.
Still, it’d be nice to get a James Bond movie that doesn’t automatically excuse Bond’s worst behavior just because he’s supposed to be the hero.