English (A)
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Barden, Ralph Feinnes

Every film icon inevitably reaches that point of malaise when past glory outshines modern endeavour. But as Sam Mendes, the director of new Bond film, Skyfall — the 23rd in the series — knows the key to resuscitating a character is to go to the beginning, to the roots of what makes man, or in this case, of what makes a superspy.

It is perhaps fitting that Skyfall’s release this month coincides with the 50th opening anniversary of the first serious Bond film, Dr No (1962), starring Sean Connery. Since then, the series has had its ups and down, its reputation often on an ebb, the formula wearing thin. Much has also changed. United Artists, the American film studio which kick-started the series, no longer exists in its original form. Sean Connery is now absent from screens and the familiar movie theater has taken a backseat to the world of on-demand media and DVD’s. But more importantly, the Bond franchise, in its five decades of existence, has metamorphosed from an American step-child to a hallmark of ‘Britishness.’

Sam Mendes, who made his reputation in Hollywood, notably with 1995’s American Beauty and 2008’s Revolutionary Road, returned to his native England to work on Skyfall – the result of which can now be regarded as canonical.

The film, which most often deals with the consequences of being a hired gun, starts with an exhilarating chase in Istanbul and the Turkish countryside. The chase ends when Bond (Daniel Craig) is shot, and falls down a canyon   every bit as dangerous as Reichenbach Falls which claimed Sherlock Holmes. The failure of the mission allows enemy forces to wield a valuable database containing the identity of every British agent embedded in terrorist and insurgent units around the globe. Even worse, as M (Judi Dench) scrambles to mitigate the damage, she finds herself under siege from an unknown nemesis who seems to have a bone to pick with her – a bone that is first tugged by bombing MI6 headquarters, by hacking its servers, and then by slowly outing the embedded agents with sadistic restraint. When the villain is found to be Silva, a talented ex-MI6 double agent who was betrayed to the Chinese by M, the film’s impetus becomes clear.

Deftly portrayed by Javier Bardem, Silva is a strange creature. Impeccable in dress, icy behind the eyes and cavalier in behaviour, Silva’s strong feelings for M are a cancerous mass of loathing and love. He calls her mum – no doubt from his agent days – but the word seems to carry an added personal meaning.

Another memorable character is Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), who plays a much misunderstood but ultimately heroic English bureaucrat who becomes a central character.
It is gratifying to see Mr Fiennes here, craft his character without bluster.

Fans of actions will salivate in the often repetitive scenes of gunfire, death-defying stunts and skillful vehicle manipulation. But those looking for something more will come across the heart of the story, the complex relationships of the past and present which bind human beings. A ride with Skyfall is a ride that goes deep, into the biological fabric of Bond, complete with a 1964 Aston Martin DB5.

With Dr No and the films that followed, Connery was hailed as the finest incarnation of Bond for his workmanship-like elegance. With Skyfall, however, Daniel Craig has firmly taken himself out from under Connery’s shadow.

It is difficult to see how Skyfall can be bested. Not for its human tale, for its final, elegiac emotion or for its fine acting. From here on, having reached the summit, the franchise may have to limit itself to exotic locales and staple action.