If haters of American Beauty feared that director Sam Mendes would ruin the James Bond franchise, they seem to have worried needlessly. The reviews of Skyfall fell in a narrow range from gushing to merely great: Its Rotten Tomatoes average stands at 91%. The film brought in $87.8 million over the weekend, breaking Bond series' records.
Audiences were presented with emo Bond, facing midlife and family demons. He also had some sex, ran around killing people, appeared in a tux, and saved the world again. The difference this time was in the movie’s Oedipal themes, built around Daniel Craig’s Bond's troubled but ultimately loving relationship with Judi Dench’s M, his MI6 boss. Javier Bardem’s villainous Silva — in a totally bonkers psychosexual portrayal that brings to mind Jame Gumb in Silence of the Lambs — is M’s bad son, and he is a hilarious disaster.
Here’s where the spoilers start, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading. And if you keep reading without having seen it and then get mad, it’s all your fault!
Dench has been the head spook since GoldenEye in 1995, the film which also marked Pierce Brosnan’s debut as Bond. She was the third actor to play the role, after Bernard Lee and Robert Brown. In this film, she was under attack from Silva, her former agent, who is determined to humiliate and destroy her. When Bond takes M to Skyfall, his abandoned childhood home, in order to protect her, they manage to defeat Silva (after many explosions). But? M dies.
This is James Bond world, though, so long live M! In the final scene, Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory, a gadfly to MI6 and Bond throughout the film, takes over the role.
I spoke last week with Robert Wade, who with his writing partner, Neal Purvis, has written the five most recent Bond films. They cowrote this one with screenwriter and playwright John Logan (Hugo, The Aviator, Gladiator, the Tony Award–winning play Red). In this conversation, which has been compressed, we discussed the movie’s franchise-changing ending.
KA: You killed M! What the hell?
RW: Well, yes, it’s unfortunate. When the idea was first booted, which was shortly after Quantum of Solace came out, nobody had any resistance to it. It just felt like the right thing to do — dealing with the relationship between Bond and her, to bring it to a satisfying conclusion. Usually you get resistance to controversial ideas like that. The relationship seemed so strong between Daniel’s incarnation of Bond and Judi’s incarnation of M that there was so much potential dramatically.
KA: Obviously, the movie faced a huge delay because of the bankruptcy and legal issues.
RW: We started with Sam Mendes in early 2010. And that M idea was the idea that everyone agreed on. The other aspect we agreed on at that stage was that we’d introduce a character — we hoped it would be Ralph Fiennes, and it ended up being Ralph Fiennes, which was amazing — that seemed to be a threat to M and Bond, and then ends up as her replacement. We just wanted to put her on the spot, as it were. We felt like it would be quite emotionally satisfying, the transition. It was always intended that the end of it would be Bond calling him M.
KA: So you wrote the character with Ralph Fiennes in mind?
RW: Yes! We had a breakfast in New York, Sam and Daniel and me and Neal, and we talked about the dream cast for this movie: Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes. That’s a measure of Sam’s greatness as a director that we ended up with that cast.
KA: The story largely revolves around Bond's relationship with M, and her relationship with her charges in general, the Bardem character being a former one of those. Let's pull that apart a little bit. How did an M-focused idea come up 50 years into the franchise?
RW: In the work that we’ve done on the Bond films, we have actually always invested in M as a shaded character and not just simply a reliably, trustworthy boss. I think that over time the way that the characters developed, between Daniel and Judi, with more of a maternal relationship, it made it even more interesting — the calculated decisions she makes about the lives of her agents. The basic fact is you have a wonderful actress and a wonderful actor, and why not make more of those aspects?
KA: I imagine fans are surprised — as I was — that there's no Bond Girl in this movie, unless you count M.
RW: Ultimately, there’s not enough room for a profound relationship or even what passes for a profound relationship. Also, I would say that the figure of Vesper was such a big deal in Casino Royale, and informs the tone of Quantum of Solace, that it’s sort of too soon for him to have a serious relationship. But really, it’s more to do with how much can you have? You don’t want to make the cake too rich. Clearly, the Judi thing, the M thing, is what it’s really all about.
KA: All the mommy stuff with Javier Bardem's Silva character is very creepy, very gay-ish, extremely crazy. Loved it. Tell me about that dynamic.
RW: The fundamental idea is that he always regarded himself as her favorite, and then she sold him down the river. That massive hurt informs everything he has done. He’s also mad. The “mommy” line — John pushed it a bit further in that direction. Certainly, John Logan made that more explicit.
KA: What sort of M is Ralph Fiennes, or will he be?
RW: They have to be able to sleep at night with the decisions they make, which are very, very damaging. They have to form a relationship of trust with someone and then be very dispassionate about it. It’s a fascinating job, really. And that’s why I really like the potential of where we’re going now with Ralph Fiennes. It’s been established that he’s ex-military and somewhat like Bond. Which is interesting, because that clearly isn’t the case with how Judi played M.
KA: Her M had real post–Cold War, post–Sept. 11 baggage, which essentially causes her demise. What were the politics you were interested in there?
RW: Bond is trapped between two worlds; he comes from an older way of looking at the world. The trouble is, you can’t go into it in any great depth. But by shifting the focus on to her dilemmas, you do see the terrible decisions she’s had to make.
KA: The Mallory character has his own dilemmas, having been on the imperial side of the endless troubles with Northern Ireland. What’s the meaning of that to a 2012 audience, particularly to a U.K. audience?
RW: When I was growing up, I never imagined that we’d have peace in our time in Northern Ireland. It just seemed like it’s so fraught. It’s a very interesting situation for Mallory to have come out of. The idea that he was heroic and survived — it’s a great thing about the character that Bond can respect. I didn’t put that into the script; I think John Logan put the idea that Mallory came out of Northern Ireland. It’s a good touch, I think.
KA: You also rebooted Q in this movie and, as we find out at the end, Moneypenny.
KA: We wanted to give the audience the pleasure of having these characters back. We deliberately took them out for Casino Royale because we wanted to focus on seeing James Bond in a new light and get rid of all the familiar stuff. It’s a great gift to be able introduce Moneypenny without telling the audience that that’s who you just met. That was something we were all looking forward to doing. With Q, we just wanted more people for Bond to play off of — just to get a bit more humor back into it.
KA: You and Neal Purvis aren’t doing the next one. Are you saying good-bye to the franchise?
RW: These movies take more and more time, and stop us from doing other things — and we do do other things, or we try to. We’re producing a script of ours called Corsica 72 that Chan-wook Park is set to direct. We’re focusing on that. John Logan is doing the next one. We’ve done five, so it’s been quite a slog where it’s stopped us from doing other things. But never say never.