James Bond: An Ageing Agent in Skyfall (2012)

As I am going to have to wait a year for the proofs to appear for my latest James Bond article, to be published in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, I thought I would offer a few thoughts on what will follow in due course. Entitled ‘Shaking and Stirring James Bond: Age, Gender and the Resilient Agent in Skyfall (2012)’, it explores how Bond’s ageing body is the primary subject matter of the film.

While there is clearly a plot involving a disgruntled MI6 agent and attacks on London (which features far more prominently than any other James Bond film), it is Bond’s body that should occupy our attention. It is worth recalling that a number of film scholars such as Lisa Funnell have made the point that Casino Royale (2006) was noteworthy because of Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond as something akin to a Bond-Bond Girl Hybrid. In an intriguing article published in The Journal of Popular Culture, she argues that the re-booted 007 introduces a new model of heroic masculinity, which manifests itself in part on a cinematic focus on his muscular torso (the much cited beach scene for example and later the incident of torture undertaken by Le Chiffre) but also as a locus of visual spectacle. 

In Skyfall, Bond’s body is in a state of disrepair. He is accidentally shot on a mission near Istanbul. His body, floating down a river, appears to be gravely injured. Later, it is revealed, that he has survived and is living in basic accommodation somewhere on the Turkish coastline. As in Casino Royale, a lover seen to be stroking his torso that has been an object of past fascination but the earlier displays of insouciance have gone. It is only when Bond learns by chance that the MI6 building has been attacked in London do we witness the gradual resurrection of Bond as a serving secret agent.

The rest of the film is thus about his bodily revival.  So when we see Bond undergoing a new training regime back in London to assess the state of his body and mind, we are witnessing a test – can Bond show sufficient resolve? The odds appear to be stacked against him. He may not have such resolve despite his initial horror at the attack on MI6. Having earlier broken into M’s apartment, their awkward conversation quickly turns to age and whether both of them are too old for their respective roles. Although younger than M, Bond’s recognition of his ageing is partly rebuffed by M’s dismissal of his ‘ageing’ and tells him to go and get washed and report for duty. Later, through separate conversations with Mallory, the chairman of the intelligence and security committee, both are asked to consider their positions – M is offered a prestigious award in return for accepting early retirement and Bond is advised that being a field agent is a ‘young man’s game’. The fact that Bond was working with a younger female agent in Istanbul barely registers in Mallory’s gendered professional imagination.

Bond’s weak performance on the shooting range (as part of this testing regime), however, suggests that his capacity to ‘take the shot’ is not assured. Unsettled by his bodily failure, his attire radically changes after the testing has finished. Sensing that his performance has been less than impressive, he shaves and he dresses in a suit in order, so we assume, to convey a sense of renewed purpose. Bond’s couture has always mattered – the buttoning up of the suit before or sometimes after an awkward encounter has always been a trademark sign of his willingness to act but also to signal a certain confidence in terms of handling a particular task. As if wearing a suit, in particular, displayed more readily personal resilience and associated capabilities. In a slightly different context, Bond’s impeccable appearance in a dinner jacket (sometimes equipped with cigarette) has been another kind of long-standing trademark of his gambling prowess. The final element in this transformation is Bond’s willingness is to excavate some bullet fragments from his chest. In a highly poignant moment, Bond takes the knife to his body (without any kind of pain relief) and digs out those fragments. He then casually hand the washed fragments in an evidence bag to another colleague. It is worth recalling that the chest wound was not down to Miss Moneypenny; his chest injury was due to a bullet fragment acquired during his chase of an assailant called Patrice on a train leaving Istanbul.

Let me leave with a couple of moments regarding Bond’s body and why it matters, as I show at the end of the paper, to the gender politics of Bond. The paper itself is a long one (11,000 words) and develops these and others in more detail.

Bond’s body threatens through out the film to let him down. In Shanghai, for example, his lack of upper body strength means that he was unable to hold on to the assassin (Patrice) as the latter fell from a high building; the implication being that he might be too fragile and too old for the job despite his best intentions. Although Patrice successfully completed his assassination mission, Bond’s failure to apprehend Patrice is mitigated by a chance discovery of a gambling chip, which takes him to Macau. Once on location, his former colleague (who we later learn is Miss Moneypenny) from Istanbul joins him, and it is she who promises to ‘watch his back’ in the casino and later saves him from almost certain death at the hand of several henchmen in Macau. But before she does so, she very carefully shaves him before he dresses in his dinner suit. The shaving incident is not only a display of trust on Bond’s behalf (she is holding a cut-throat razor) but it is also an opportunity to rejuvenate; a younger and fresher-looking Bond duly appears (a throw-back to his appearance in a dinner jacket in Casino Royale).

When Bond finally does catch up with the person behind the attack on MI6, he finds himself in a vulnerable position. Tied to a chair, Silva taunts him about his heterosexuality. The defiant ‘How do you know it is my first time’ has a more desperate quality to it compared to when a naked Bond was tied to a chair and tortured by Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Silva’s challenge to Bond is unsettling – he does not threaten him with extreme violence. He does something worse – he challenges his bodily resilience by probing his heterosexuality. Can Bond endure a hetero-normative challenge– one in which his chest is caressed by Silva where his restrained body cannot ‘protect’ him. While women have stroked that torso before, now the stroking is being undertaken by a male adversary. This is made worse, perhaps, by a context, in which he cannot demonstrate a bodily capacity to endure physical pain (as in Casino Royale). The scene in question reinforces a well-established tradition within the James Bond series of vilifying homosexuality and the homosexual body.  In From Russia with Love, Colonel Klebb’s caressing of the young Russian female colleague is framed as entirely predatory and unwanted. Bond’s sexual advances are rarely rebuffed. They are usually depicted as either encouraged and/or accepted after an element of reluctance (most notably involving Pussy Galore in Goldfinger). Silva’s caressing of Bond’s chest is all the more invasive because we know, as viewers, what that chest has recently endured, and indeed, revealed. Bond’s heterosexual credibility (and on-going resilience) is later restored, or so it appears, when he not only escapes his bondage but also reveals to Silva that a secret tracking device has enabled British military helicopters to rendezvous with him for the expressed purpose of capturing and detaining Silva. While we may wonder where these helicopters came from (given Bond’s location somewhere off an island in Chinese waters), Bond has not been distracted from the job in hand. What we have before the film shifts decisively to London is, therefore, a series of staged encounters involving physical trauma, tentative recovery, and highly sexualised encounters.

Finally, if Bond’s body is tested, M’s professional judgement is tested throughout as if to suggest that there might be a gendered division of responsibility. It is only when we get to Skyfall (i.e. Bond’s childhood home) that her body is also tested more explicitly. Bond pursuit of Silva through London is juxtaposed with M’s appearance before an intelligence and security committee. Quizzed by a younger female Home Secretary about her professional competence highlighting the critical vector of age not gender here. M is ‘saved’ by the intervention of Mallory who provides some respite from the critical questioning – the very person who had earlier questioned M’s capacity to operate at the highest level. So the public committee offers an opportunity for the older Mallory to behave in a chivalrous manner perhaps sensing that even if he agreed with the line of questioning this was no way to treat a senior civil servant. But what is clear from before is that M does not like being held to account and indeed this has the affect of actually ageing her still further. She dislikes being ordered to appear before ministers (Casino Royale) and intelligence figures such as Mallory. She warns, privately and publicly, of ‘shadowy’ threats and her place making practices (e.g. describing the world and analysing strategies) helps to populate the geopolitical landscape of Skyfall. And in so doing, hopes to demonstrate that her long experience of professional service should be still valued and not cross-examined.

What Skyfall ends up suggesting is that in order for Britain to be safe in these disquieting times, it needs middle to late middle-aged men (wearing well cut suits) in charge of the office and the field. Young men and women, in this nostalgic division of labour, can either be part of the technological avant-garde (Q) or personal assistants (Miss Moneypenny). Earlier evidence of gender ambiguity, as noted in Casino Royale for example, appears to have been jettisoned in favour of lionising the ageing heterosexual male character. The monstrous and sexually ambivalent Silva has been killed off – Bond and Britain no longer has to listen to him complaining about spying complicities and torture in far away places. Bond no longer has to endure the caressing of Silva on his scared chest. A particular brand of heterosexual patriotism is foregrounded once more just as he stands, confidentially, on top of MI6’s old office building with the Union flags gently fluttering in the background. In the meantime, the first female head of MI6 is dead and Eve Moneypenny is no longer a field agent. As Bond said to her, “the field is not for everyone’.

I am going to be writing a short chapter early next year on the relationship between 007 and Moneypenny in Skyfall for a two volume book entitled The Women of James Bond, to be edited by Lisa Funnell. So there will be more to say!



3 thoughts on “James Bond: An Ageing Agent in Skyfall (2012)

  1. Reblogged this on Open Geography and commented:
    Klaus Dodds gives us his analysis of the latest Bond movie, Skyfall. I recently rewatched this to reassess it after an initial viewing that left me disappointed. Although it was better than Quantum of Solace, it did not reach the heights of Casino Royale, which is a very well realized movie. Klauss here focuses on the body–not just Bond’s but also that of M, and their co-mutual ageing and subsequent weakness and (possible) recovery (or acceptance). He might also have mentioned Silva’s (the movie’s bad guy character) own bodily damage, as when in captivity in the makeshift MI6 HQ he takes out a retainer from his mouth and his face falls in. This is meant to be a central motivating scene in the movie, similar to that of Alec Trevelayn (Sean Bean) in GoldenEye. Both Trevelyn and Silva are former MI6 agents who feel betrayed and are seeking revenge (one of the weaknesses of Skyfall is this derivative plot line).

    The best part of Skyfall are the scenes at the eponymous locale in Scotland where Bond grew up. We know from the books that he has Scottish origins and is an orphan. This is the first time I can recall any significant reference, never mind placement in Scotland or Bond’s youth (again this would fit Klaus’ analysis of Bond’s body, but here with the implication of youth and growth). As evidence of this the old retainer of the estate is still dwelling there and helps M escape (although M has been shot this is not displayed, or perhaps she hides it as much from herself as from Bond and Kincade, the retainer).

    This destroys the estate house (destroys Bond’s youthful body?) and results in the deaths of both M and Silva (the latter in a badly acted death scene).

    I agree with Klaus that this movie is a lionizing of the older ageing body (and character) of Bond, but would trace it back to earlier films where M calls Bond out on the carpet as a sexist relic of the cold war (whichever one that was, perhaps the first one where Judi Dench plays M, ie GoldenEye). This was surely an attempt at relevance for the series in the post-Cold War, but pre-9/11 era.

    Looking forward to more Bond analysis from Klaus! I must admit to being a fan since my early teens, reading all the books etc. Its ironic acknowledgement of its sexist premise and its ageing character may not be much, but are finally what sets it apart from completely unironic and unappealing fare such as 24.

  2. Thanks Jeremy. Your comments are very welcome. I say more in the paper about Silva’s body and the manner in which his body is marked by torture. As it happens, all three men (Bond, Silva and Mallory) have suffered torture in the past at the hands of North Korean, Chinese and Irish opponents respectively.
    Your point about Skyfall and what that represents is well made and I appreciate those insights. And yes I agree earlier episodes involving Judi Dench’s M are pivotal as well to not only their relationship but also issues pertaining to bodies and ageing.

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