Bonding With History: Revisiting Postmodernism In Skyfall

By Alex Gabriel

Near the third act of Skyfall, as the film’s soundtrack swells and Daniel Craig tears through Whitehall on foot, Judi Dench turns to poetry.

‘We are not know 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.’

She’s quoting Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, and here the text points to James Bond as much as postimperial Britain. Like Ulysses — originally, Odysseus — this Bond is an aging sea dog, lost in action, weather-beaten, come back to a kingdom in disrepair.

Skyfall, an odyssey of Bond’s own, is by far his most literary film, classicist touches woven through its script: even the Walther PPK is recast in Greek terms, a weapon, like Odysseus’s bow, that only the owner can fire. Bond’s marksmanship is legendary, but isn’t what it was — ‘Is there,’ asks Silva during a contest, ‘any of the old 007 left?’ — and it’s only in the third act, when Bond regains his aim, that we know he’s returned for good.

As in stories, so in espionage: sometimes, numerous characters remark, the old ways are the best. More than anyone in the film, it’s Dench’s M who’s dismissed as antique, an old school spymaster irrelevant in the new world. MI6, Ralph Fiennes fears, appear ‘antiquated idiots’, paid to work in the shadows when ‘there are no more shadows.’ The shadows, counters M, are where the film’s antagonists originate, where only Bond and others like him know how to survive. Before reeling off Tennyson, she gives what will turn out to be a valedictory speech:

‘Today I’ve repeatedly heard how irrelevant my department has become. Why do we need agents, the double-o section? Isn’t it all rather quaint? Well: I suppose I see different world than you do, and the truth is that what I see frightens me. I’m frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They’re not nations. They are individuals. And ook around you — who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No: our world is not more transparent now. It’s more opaque. It’s in the shadows — that’s where we must do battle. So before you declare us irrelevant, ask yourself: how safe do you feel?’

On her first appearance in 1995, Dench names Pierce Brosnan’s Bond ‘a relic of the Cold War’ — here she too is a dinosaur, and proud of it. These are, strictly speaking, two different characters: with the Bond continuity reset for Casino Royale, M became a chief spook of twenty years, not someone who arrived in the nineties. Even then, two films prior to Skyfall, the seeds of this speech can be seen — rather than disparaging the Cold War, M misses it.

Like Skyfall, GoldenEye was named for Bond’s childhood home — specifically, the Jamaican estate where Fleming conceived him. Both films argue for his continued relevance, in and out of diegesis, at times of doubt — indeed, for who and what Bond is — though their arguments differ markedly. The two are also Dench’s first and final films, and her development is where the shift is most pronounced. By Skyfall, modernism is replaced by nostalgia.

After a record-length absence and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Brosnan’s films reached for innovation, insisting Bond needn’t go the way of his quarries in the Kremlin. In many ways, they mirrored the advent of New Labour: where Moore had been an Englishman abroad, this Bond was more European than any, adopting Italian suits; as the Internet age took hold, Brosnan’s gadgets grew more extravagant, and his Bond shared Blair’s love of New Britain, scaling the Millennium Dome and Eden Project. Vauxhall, MI6’s new home, also replaced Whitehall.

As Bond was modernised, so was his world. Moneypenny, at least in GoldenEye, was furnished with a love life of her own, while agents played by Michelle Yeoh and Halle Berry became love interests, portrayed, while ultimately damsellised, as Bond’s equals. (Brosnan’s version, filmmakers seemed at pains to stress, was willing and able to please women sexually.) His lovers were no longer all white, and nor were his colleagues, with Colin Salmon’s character replacing Bill Tanner.

The urge to modernise — rarely more cackhandedly than in Die Another Day, festooned with Matrix camerawork and CGI — was what tanked the series, triggering a ‘back to basics’ reboot. Bringing Bond up to date meant bringing him further and further from Ian Fleming, whose hero was conceived as an anachronism, Eton-educated and navy-trained, abjuring homosexuals, female emancipation and races ‘lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy’.

Fleming’s Bond, as James Peaty writes, is the gamekeeper of an empire his creator mourned, steadfast against its ideals’ desertion. While the character’s context changes, he does not, and this is his purpose: the more filmmakers tried to update Bond, the less remained, because he isn’t meant to be modern. Skyfall understands this. Although it trims the excesses of Fleming’s ideas — methods more than attitudes are to blame — the film makes a point of acknowledging its moral protagonists, Bond and M, feel out of date.

‘You know the game. You’ve been playing it long enough.’
‘We both have. Maybe too long.’

Like Ulysses, Bond is weakened by time and fate, older and slower than when we saw him last, struggling to stay in a young man’s game. He is matched, moreover, against the technoterrorist Silva and Ben Whishaw’s millennial Q, a triggerman in the age of cyberwarfare. Yet where Q is outwitted by Silva, low tech, old fashioned Bond sinks a knife in his back. The Brosnan era from GoldenEye on showed Bond keeping up with a world turned on its head: now that the world has turned again, argues Skyfall, modernity itself is out of date, and it’s the triggermen we need.

Is it by accident this film uproots all its contemporary elements, blowing up Vauxhall Cross to move MI6 underground? In its opening act, M supervises Bond’s ‘death’ from across the world via flatscreen. It’s via the same computer system, it turns out, that Silva destroys the building. In the third act, Bond gains the upper hand by isolating himself and M on a Scottish moor, no servers or Cables in sight: between Skyfall itself, a 1964 Aston Martin and the family rifle with which he finally shoots straight, nothing in the climax belongs to the present.

Here too, Dench — sole remaining actor from the Brosnan years — is written out, replaced by Fiennes, whose gender and background return us to Fleming’s M. It’s in his familiar oak-panelled office the film ends, Bond returning to duty, sensing as Ulysses does that ‘work of noble note may yet be done’. In the next room, Moneypenny sits in her usual place, and on the wall HMS Victory puffs her sails — the grand old war ship, in Q’s words, not ‘ignominously hauled away to scrap’, but surging forth, wind on her side, all guns blazing. Sometimes the old ships are the best.

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