Watching Skyfall: Geopolitics, gender and power

By Alice Oates

We recently attended a screening and discussion of Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012) courtesy of the RHUL Geography Society and Prof Klaus Dodds; an enjoyable evening that raised many interesting questions about geopolitics, mobility and gender in the Craig-era of the Bond franchise. Topics ranged from the popular representation of global terrorist networks and resource geopolitics, to the way power is embodied through individual characters. Skyfall masterfully combines the elements of a classic Bond film – fast-paced action, smooth one-liners and a wonderfully-written villain – with an updated narrative that plays on contemporary urban insecurities and Bond’s personal nostalgia.

   Bond villains rarely reach London… in Skyfall there is no longer a safe domestic space

The difference between Skyfall and other Bond films – including earlier films in the Daniel Craig era – is visibly evident in the film’s focus on London. Villains rarely reach London, with the partial exception of The World is Not Enough (Michael Apted, 1999), with Bond himself tending to visit M’s office and Q’s lab before dashing off to another country to face a foreign threat. Q, Moneypenny and M can (and do) enter the field but this is also rare in the James Bond films.

Bond’s impressive geographic range is illustrated in this map – created by ESRI UK to coincide with the release of Spectre. In Skyfall we see both an expansion of Bond’s horizons to Shanghai – a deliberate reaching out to Chinese audiences, which resulted in some editing by Chinese censors – at the same time as an unknown and powerful threat is bearing down on London and MI6 itself.

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Skyfall burning (Photo: Paul Hennessy / Splash News)

While Bond visits several exotic locations throughout Skyfall, it is in London, the home of Bond’s adventures, where the evil genius Silva (an ex-MI6 operative) chooses to enact his threats.  There is therefore no longer a safe domestic space from this new and powerful threat – both Bond’s professional and former childhood home (the MI6 building and Skyfall Lodge) suffer catastrophic explosions, striking at the heart of Bond’s life. To compound matters, his flat was sold off by M after she thought he was accidentally killed by Moneypenny in Turkey.

The personal nature of space and place in Bond, and the challenges posed by dealing with such a diffuse threat (meaning here a threat not tied to a particular location or state, but to global connectivity and virtual, as well as physical, locations) are echoed by the film’s focus on particular bodies; namely, Bond’s and M’s. Silva seems uninterested in using the power he has amassed through the manipulation of technology to ‘take over the world’ in the style of past villains. Instead, Silva wants to get to M, and he wants to break Bond in the process. It is all terribly personal and highly directed. From their first meeting, where Silva sits close to Bond and touches Bond’s chest (see photo below), it is clear that Silva is making this fight a personal one. And one that he takes to London to confront M in person over her role in his torture by Chinese agents in the wake of the Hong Kong handover.

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Silva and Bond (Photo and excellent review: metalarcade.net)

It is impossible to discuss bodies and power in Skyfall without turning to the women of the film; Moneypenny, M, and Severine. The most uncomfortable moment of embodied power for me comes in the yacht shower scene between Bond and Severine. Bond makes it explicitly clear in Macau that he understands that Severine’s life has been controlled by powerful people – code for men – and that she is afraid of the repercussions of going against her current ‘employer’. He understands that she is watched and controlled by her ‘bodyguards’, and that she is now depending on him to help her escape (the then unknown) Silva. He promises to protect her from ‘him’.

She sleeps with him, she leads him to his enemy, she dies. She is the classic femme fatale

However, he then approaches her (presumably) naked in the shower on her yacht. Severine doesn’t even see Bond’s face initially – he could be anyone. While she is clearly expecting him – there are two champagne glasses on the table and she seems visibly upset that he hasn’t arrived when a crew member informs her they’re leaving – there is no narrative value to a sexual encounter, and nor does Bond at any point have her consent. It is rare for a Bond girl to have equal power to Bond in their encounters. Even seemingly manipulative and powerful women such as The World is Not Enough’s Elektra and Die Another Day‘s Miranda Frost are later revealed to be close to Bond at the behest of others – by men.

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A visibly shaken Severine discusses her ’employer’ with Bond, and agrees to help him (Photo: lifebetweenframes.blogspot.co.uk)

Severine’s role in the film is cruelly short and simple – she sleeps with him, she leads him to his enemy, she dies. She is the classic femme fatale. There is no time afforded to mourning her – Bond uses the moment to seize control and take Silva captive, and Bond’s victory as the MI6 helicopters appear over Silva’s secret island utterly overshadows the moment of Severine’s humiliating death. At no point in the film does Severine have any power beyond advancing the plot.

And then there is M. In Judi Dench’s final film as M, she is, as ever, excellent. M takes a central role in Skyfall because of Silva’s intense focus on her. Skyfall’s success rests, to a degree, on M being female – it is hard to imagine Silva referring to Ralph Fiennes as ‘Daddy’ in the same way he repeatedly refers to M as ‘Mummy’. M is at once powerful – head of MI6, in control of the decisions her agents make, and powerful in terms of the control Silva’s obsession lends her over him – and also vulnerable. It is her body that suffers a fatal wound, her computer Silva uses to access MI6, and her actions that are questioned in court.

It would equally be interesting to ask how Moneypenny’s story might have unfolded were she male. Of three women in Skyfall two die and one becomes, essentially, a secretary. Moneypenny’s one mistake takes her away from active duty forever, whereas Bond returns to duty despite being physically and psychologically unfit. Ironically, it is Bond who lectures Moneypenny that fieldwork may not be for everyone!

This Q is a Q for the era of cybertechnology, where who runs the internet runs the world

The final character of note is Q. No longer the gadget-wielding, labcoat wearing Q of previous Bonds, Ben Whishaw’s Q (image below) does his job with a laptop and immense skill with technology. This Q is a Q for the era of cybertechnology, where who runs the internet runs the world. He is the perfect balance to Silva’s control – as he boasts to Bond on the island – over every aspect of a connected globe, from national economies to satellites. Bond is unable to take on Silva alone without Q; only at Skyfall can he take control again, forcing Silva into a situation where Bond has the upper hand once more. But he also makes mistakes. Unlike Moneypenny those mistakes are judged by other men in power to be forgivable.

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Ben Whishaw as Q (Photo: telegraph.co.uk)

Characters such as M and Q are replaced both in-film and in-cast. M dies, necessitating appointment of Fiennes’s M. Whishaw’s Q is an entirely new persona. Bond, on the other hand, is only ever replaced in the cinematic world; new actors play the same man, constant no matter how MI6 and the rest of the world changes around him. With the introduction of Whishaw’s technologically brilliant Q, this raises questions as to how Bond will adapt to the uncertain future of the geopolitical landscape; will he be able to learn the skills needed to battle diffuse and shadowy enemies, or will he gradually become obsolete as it becomes less and less obvious who, exactly, needs to be punched or shot in the pursuit of national security?

Skyfall repeatedly takes us “back in time” through Bond’s past, as 007 himself remarks when dusting off the classic Aston Martin DB5 in which both he and M retreat from the threatened urban infrastructure of London to Bond’s dusty, remote and offline childhood home in the Scottish Highlands. Nostalgia has persisted as a key theme in the Bond franchise ever since Die Another Day, when Pierce Brosnan and John Cleese (Q) browse an array of vintage gadgets from previous films on the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film Dr No. Craig’s latest appearance in Spectre also sees a narrative predominantly shaped by Bond’s familial and professional past. Looking beyond the present, then, when will Bond rediscover both himself and the geopolitical and gendered world which shapes his adventures? How will we see grander geopolitical narratives and popular threats imagined in future films? In turn, what informs the 007 scriptwriters in shaping these narratives?

As fans of Bond and students of geopolitics, we are intrigued to find out what the future of the classic franchise holds in store and whether SPECTRE (Sam Mendes, 2015) will provide rich insights for fans and geopolitical students alike.

 Alice Oates is an MSc Geopolitics and Security student. She studied an undergraduate degree in Geography at Cambridge and is interested in popular geopolitics, feminist geopolitics, and how systems of power are developed and reproduced. 

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