This post, obviously, discusses plot points from Skyfall.
I. The Bulldog
Skyfall is supremely British movie. M writes Bond’s obituary with a bottle of whiskey and a china bulldog painted to look like the Union Jack as company at her desk. After the bombing of MI6 headquarters, Bond grouses “The whole office goes up in smoke and that bloody thing survives?” “Your interior decorating tips are always appreciated,” M tells him tartly. When MI6 relocates, it’s to Winston Churchill’s old bunker: “Quite fascinating, if it wasn’t for the rats,” M’s aide Tanner (Rory Kinnear) says. During a free-associative exercise as part of his field assessment, Bond’s asked to respond to the world “Country.” His immediate response, of course, is “England.” When he and M return to Skyfall, the family estate Bond hasn’t visited since he left for school, they’re met by a fabulous old-school retainer, Kincade. “Some men are coming to kill us. We’re going to kill them first,” Bond informs him. “Then we’d better get ready,” Kincade replies stoutly. When the first henchman meets Kincade’s shotgun, he dispatches the man with a hearty “Welcome to Scotland.” Even the language of daily conversation feels more staunchly English than usual, whether it’s Bond telling M “Just changing carriages,” as the back half of a train is violently torn away behind him, or M sourly suggesting, on Bond’s return from a long absence that “I suppose they ran out of drink where you were.”
That vigorous emphasis on cultural signifiers of British national character makes sense. Skyfall is a film that’s explicitly concerned with the blowback to British imperialism, and implicitly structured to bridge the gap between the UK’s two great contributions to spy culture: the bureaucratic knife-fight and the secret agent with the Walther PPK.
“England. The Empire. MI6. You’re living in a ruin,” Skyfall’s antagonist, Silva (Javier Bardem) tells Bond when he finally arrives on-screen. Much more so than a traditional Bond film villain, Silva is a photo-negative of Bond, a man whose faith in MI6 has been shattered, who abandoned British soil to live on a Japanese island that looks like a dreamscape in Inception, complete with a tumbled Ozymandian statue, who wears white and cream to Bond’s black, who fights his battles with server farms instead of his fists, and whose sexual ominvorousness extends even beyond Bond’s own. It’s possible he’s meant as an allusion to Julian Assange, who recently caused the UK some measure of annoyance, in both physical presentation and weapon of choice. But Skyfall makes the interesting choice to give Silva grievances against his government more legitimate than any Assange suffered personally. When M ran him as an agent in Hong Kong during the transition of control from the British to China, she handed him over to the Chinese government after he was discovered doing offensive hacking outside his brief. “I got six agents in return, and a peaceful transition,” M explains to Bond without sentiment. Silva was tortured, and when he tried to take his cyanide capsule, it failed to kill him. “Life clung to me like a disease,” Silva tells her, revealing the destruction of his dental plate, the ruined face he conceals with prosthetics. “Do you know what hydrogen cyanide does to you? Look upon your work.” Hong Kong isn’t the only element of British foreign policy history that Skyfall alludes to: as Silva stalks M through London, the movie brings up the dreadful specter of that city’s subway bombings. Who needs doomsday devices when you have reality?
The chase ends, where it has to, in a Parliamentary hearing room at Westminster. John Le Carre, the creator of some of the greatest heroes of bureaucratic British spydom, has explained that he dislikes James Bond because “It seems to me he’s more some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a license to kill… he’s a man entirely out of the political context.” Much of the best of British spy fiction has responded to Bond in the same way, from George Smiley’s disinfection of the Circus, to the men and women working inside the Grid in Spooks. And among the other work of the Daniel Craig era in the Bond franchise has been the reconciliation of that “international gangster” with British politics and bureaucracy. In Casino Royale, M is disgusted at being called in to testify as to Bond’s conduct after he shoots up an embassy in Africa, both because she has to deal with the oversight, and because Bond’s given Parliament reason to demand it:
Who the hell do they think they are? I report to the Prime Minister and even he’s smart enough not to ask me what we do. Have you ever seen such a bunch of self-righteous, ass-covering prigs? They don’t care what we do; they care what we get photographed doing. And how the hell could Bond be so stupid? I give him double-O status and he celebrates by shooting up an embassy. Is the man deranged? And where the hell is he? In the old days if an agent did something that embarrassing he’d have a good sense to defect. Christ, I miss the Cold War.
In Skyfall, she’s back at it again, this time on even more serious grounds. After Bond fails to stop Patrice, a terrorist who managed to steal the encrypted identities of NATO agents embedded in terrorist organizations, M finds herself called to heel by Mallory (Ralph Feinnes), a former soldier-turned bureaucrat. “Are we to call this civilian oversight?” M asks him. “We call it retirement planning,” he tells her. “I’m here to oversee the transition period leading to your voluntary retirement in two months’ time.” After those agents are unmasked and begin to be killed, M is called before an inquiry to explain herself, an act that both makes Bond and his colleagues answerable to a political context and gives M an opportunity to explain why the kind of political context Le Carre called for is less clear-cut in a post-Cold War era. “Our enemies are no longer known to us,” she tells the minister. “They don’t exist on a map. our world is not more transparent, now. It’s more opaque. That’s where we have to fight. In the shadows.” As Silva makes his murderous way towards her, she quotes Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.