Wednesday, November 7, 2012

M is for Mother

It hits the ground running—and driving, and riding, and leaping and pummeling—this 23rd entry into the James Bond franchise, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. Throughout the Turkey-set opening sequence, Bond (Daniel Craig) and fellow MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) chase a murderous mercenary in possession of a stolen hard drive loaded with the names of NATO agents in terrorist organizations. Bond pursues his target—mostly on motorbike—through a busy marketplace, along the rattling spine of tiled roofs, over a bridge’s edge and onto a moving train, where the dudes duke it out until Eve fires a rifle and brings the melee to a sudden halt. It’s an absorbing aperitif, superbly executed and generic in the best sense of the word—evidence that perhaps director Sam Mendes should stop trying to plumb domestic dismay for pseudo-profundities (see American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) and stick to highbrow actioners. (Collaborating with cinematographic genius Roger Deakins doesn’t hurt.)

But here’s the thing about Skyfall’s opening: fast-paced and gripping as it is, the whole time I kept thinking, How can these agents possibly do their job properly with the voice of M (Judi Dench) constantly beaming into their skulls the whole time, checking up on them, demanding details, issuing commands from the safety of an office a continent away? Let’s not forget that M stands for Mum, among other things, and it seems to me that this Mum’s not granting her grown children the anonymity they deserve or even require, given the unfathomable pressure they’re under. Even in the case of Bond—an archetype of sophisticated, lone wolf machismo if ever there was one—the man’s actions are still conditioned by the boy’s need for mom’s permission. That Bond was orphaned at an early age—something that will play a pivotal role in Skyfall’s final act—only makes this condition more acute. M is Bond’s surrogate mother, a chosen mother, both loved and loathed, and all the more dominant because of it.

This isn’t just me applying amateur psychology to the minutia of an otherwise straightforward entertainment; the surrogate mother/surrogate son dynamic will gradually shift from subtext to foreground. Skyfall’s is a very sly script, written by Bond veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade and playwright-turned screenwriter John Logan, probably most famous for The Last Samurai, his Scorsese collaborations and for Red, his play about Mark Rothko. As Skyfall clips along he mother-son dynamic will be expanded and then doubled with the entrance of the film’s shamelessly campy but very entertaining villain, one Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem, perhaps channeling Udo Kier), a former MI6 agent exacting improbable and elaborate revenge on M. Silva’s got some colossal abandonment issues, and if he has to decimate vast chunks of London to have it out with his neglectful Mum and the man he perhaps deems to be her favoured son, so what? Empathy for innocent bystanders isn’t high on the list of values imparted upon Her Majesty’s killer minions.

By the time the smoke clears, Bond—or to be precise, Craig’s refreshingly complex, damaged Bond—will have been rendered at once more vulnerable and more invincible than ever before, having endured new heights of physical and psychic scrutiny. He emerges older but stronger, more traumatized and more alone. All in all not the worst state to be in when you’re turning 50. 

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