Klaus Dodds, in a follow up to his earlier post, re-examines Skyfall with a particular focus on the body and gender.
I went to watch Skyfall a second time a few weeks ago with my brother and his wife, and ended up chatting about a remarkably striking element of this latest outing of James Bond – the fragile state of his body and his utter dependence on others.
In stark contrast to Daniel Craig’s first outing in Casino Royale, there are no lingering moments of a insouciant Bond wading through the warm waters off the Bahamas. At best, we see Bond briefly swimming in a stunning roof top pool in Shanghai but my first thought was that he was probably swimming as part of his recuperative therapy following shoulder injuries. At its bleakest moment in Casino Royale, when Bond is being cruelly tortured by his adversary (Le Chiffre) he still has the capacity to joke about his testicular pain. By contrast, in Skyfall, Bond’s physical presence seems more hesitant
Even to witness his brief late night swim in Shanghai was somewhat miraculous given that Bond was shot and fell spectacularly from a train somewhere outside Istanbul. The camera follows, we presume, his corpse’s journey in the river, down a waterfall and eventually to who knows where. After an unlikely survival, Bond’s fragile physical health is further compromised by alcoholism and depression. He is a wreck and only shakes his stupor when he learns, by accident, that MI6 has been attacked. By the time he shows up at M’s house, he looks and sounds terrible. M’s retort that ‘he should have called’ underlines the sheer length of time he had been out of contact with his superiors. So long, as it happens, that Bond later learns that his house and possessions have been disposed of (with the exception of his Aston Martin DB5 which no one appeared to know was kept in a lock-up garage).
This sense of being ‘cast out’ by MI6 is partially redeemed by M’s willingness to lie about Bond’s capacity to return to field service. Bond barely manages the tests assigned to him and collapses, literally, in a heap when no one evaluating him is looking. Passed for duty he is sent to China to follow up a possible tracing of the man (Patrice) who stole a secret disk (containing information about embedded NATO agents) after he dramatically extracts some fragments of a bullet lodged in his chest area. Once in Shanghai he tracks the assassin/theft and dramatically confronts him on the upper levels of a skyscraper in Shanghai. Importantly, at exactly the moment that Bond is hoping to discover further information about who the man is working for, his upper body strength fails him and he is unable to save the assassin dangling precariously from the building. He falls to his death and Bond’s chance discovery of a gambling chip takes him next to Macau in pursuit of his mission to recover the disk.
What follows next is a procession of men, ranging from a young and rather weedy looking Q to two older men (a senior civil servant, Mallory and a Scottish gamekeeper, Kincade) who are important accomplices, and it is their experiences and skills in areas such as shooting, map reading and dealing with authority figures that prove critical to Bond’s survival and persistence as a field agent. A recurrent theme, therefore, is older men having to work collaboratively to foil a deadly plot to assassinate M. Assisted, it should be noted, by a younger female agent (who we later discover is Miss Moneypenny) who saves Bond in Macau after he lost his highly specialized gun and was on the verge of being consumed by an iguana in a gambling club. Which rather puts into perspective an earlier invitation by Bond to protect a potential informant (Severine), with assistance he did manage to rendezvous with her on a yacht travelling towards the main adversary’s secret hideout. But it is more by luck than calculated judgment. The enthusiastic love scene involving Severine and Bond (while both are in the shower) has a desperate quality about it reeking of relief rather than expectation.
So the idea that Bond represents a heterosexual male protector figure is anything but assured in Skyfall. If anything his eventual encounter with the evil genius, a disgruntled former MI6 agent (Silva) who taunts and caresses James Bond while tied to a chair, blurs Bond’s role as the heterosexual male. The last time we saw Bond tied to a chair, he was naked and being beaten by Le Chiffre. This time he is clothed and teased about his sexuality. ‘How do you know it is my first time?’ he retorts to Silva. In their brief conversation, his loyalty to M, his patriotism and his sexuality is mocked by Silva. As is being loyal to M, bisexual and patriotic were inconceivable to his adversary. Moments later, Bond is denied the opportunity to reassert his heterosexual male protector credentials when Silva cynically assassinates Severine. Bond appears to restore some credibility when be reveals that a secret radio-tracking device has enabled British military helicopters to track him and thus enable Silva to be captured.
All of this proves to be a rather pyrrhic victory, as it becomes clear that Silva wished to be captured and in front of M reveals that he like Bond has a tortured body. His burning hatred of M turns out to be due to her betrayal, which led him to be tortured by Chinese agents. In a desperate attempt to end his life, he took poison that far from killing him left his face hideously deformed. Like Bond his body is testimony to his service to Queen and country – or in this case an ex-secret agent cast aside for the sake of the transition of Hong Kong from the UK to China. Silva’s disbelief in Bond’s persistent loyalty to M is all the more pronounced given his betrayal. But her willingness to give Bond’s battered and bruised body a second chance helps Bond to forgive his accidental shooting by a fellow agent in Turkey.
Is this Bond film misogynistic? I don’t think this is straightforward. As I have noted above, this film is preoccupied with three men and their aging and fragile bodies (Bond, Mallory and Kincade) trying to protect M with the help of a young and the physically slight Q. But it is also the case that camera lingers on M’s aging face and her references to her late husband remind us that she is now a widow facing pensioning off thanks to the spectacular attack on MI6 itself. Her computer was hacked in the process, and Silva mocks her online and offline.
The femme fatale character (Silverine) is killed off shortly after Bond has made love to her. This bears all the hallmarks of the spy genre, and the kind of film noir credentials the Daniel Craig Bond trilogy established in Casino Royale. But Bond unquestionably wants to save her. We learn, through their conversation with each other, the background to her life as a child prostitute. The shower scene has, as I noted earlier, a desperate quality about it – two vulnerable people making love in a way that provides some temporary relief from their haunted pasts. Her death is ultimately due to the fact that Bond could not save her – he had to shoot a shot glass of whiskey off her head armed with an old fashioned pistol. His shooting, as demonstrated in earlier during the training, was far from perfect, and he missed subsequently. Silva simply shot her. If Bond had been a better shot – she might have survived. Unlike other femme fatales in Bond films, there are no quips, there is no foreplay, and there are no seductive one-liners. This does not appear, yet another moment, of Bond getting his way with woman in order to either satisfy his own lust or take revenge on other alpha males (think of the married woman Solange Dimitrios in Casino Royale).
Miss Moneypenny after her accidental shooting of Bond (in a moment of heightened tension) proves herself to be sexually confident (and note Bond’s siting posture when she sexually teases him about being an ‘old dog’ – it resembles his encounter with Silva – both times Bond is vulnerable), physically competent (saving Bond’s life in Macau) and later she is the one who chooses to take a desk job with Mallory as her boss. While she acknowledges that Bond may have point that fieldwork is not for everyone, she is the one who takes the decision to step away from that role. And, moreover, when it comes to the camera lingering on Miss Moneypenny’s body it does so in a very different manner to that of Vesper in Casino Royale. She is not asked to wear a particularly provocative dress (Bond wanted Vesper’s dress/body to distract his fellow card players) – Miss Moneypenny chooses her clothing and she is the one who tells Bond that ‘she has his back’ in the gambling club in Macau. She uses her sharp-heeled shoe to prevent a thug from assassinating Bond.
Finally, what about M? Notwithstanding physical frailties she retains a capacity to inspire loyalty amongst her staff and to give robust and reassuring testimony when challenged by the Intelligence and Security Committee, noticeably the female Home Secretary. While Mallory, Bond and Kincade all play their part in saving her at various times, she also proves capable of killing a number of assassins sent to kill her and Bond at Skyfall lodge. Her death in an abandoned church at Skyfall is accidental in the sense that a stray bullet hit her while in the midst of a firefight. She bravely continues on her feet and escapes with Kincade through a secret tunnel. Bond again, as with Severine, cannot save her even though he is able to knife Silva in the back.
Yes two out of the three women in this film die, and the surviving leading female character chooses an office job rather than remain a field agent. But in their different ways, all three characters are portrayed in markedly different ways – there are no lingering shots of scantily clad women emerging from the sea. The camera does linger on Miss Moneypenny’s confident walking posture (both in Macau and in the underground offices of MI6) but it serves to emphasize her sense of overall sexual confidence and professional purpose. We never see her naked. We suspect Bond and her may have had a sexual encounter in China but it is never clear. There are no Strawberry Fields in this film. There are no women regretting being seduced by Bond. And Bond’s loyalty and obvious distress when M dies only reinforces Bond’s fragility and the loco parentis role she has clearly been playing in his life.
When we learn at the end of the film that Mallory is the new M, with Miss Moneypenny supporting him in a secretarial role, I took this scene as the starting point of Bond’s possible resurrection. In their different ways, an older man (who served in the military in Northern Ireland who experienced torture like Bond) and a younger women Miss Moneypenny (who gave him the confidence that an old dog could learn new tricks) may well prove essential to a middle aged spy who is desperate to remain a serving field agent.
This is a film about aging, about fragility and about tentative rejuvenation.