I am black and British, born in England, a citizen who often feels more like a subject. Bond films have always been a useful way for me to relate to the nation I belong to. Bond is an English cultural staple that I’ve always understood; he is as itinerant as I feel but still, forever, tied to England.
This year the Bond films turned 50, though I’ve always felt that they were born 50 years too late; the image they often project, of James Bond as the world’s policeman, working on behalf of its most vital nation, is at least that long out of date. Since the end of World War Two, England has been a country in decline. The last half a century has seen it steadily lose the Empire it once presided over, the one they said the Sun would never set on because it covered a third of the world. Bond films are great at reveling in the joys of an England that no longer exists. As time has gone on this has made them unreliable, unrelatable, escapism. But, more worryingly, they have collectively been celebrated, out of all proportion, as real nostalgia. Skyfall is interesting (and palpable relief for a black girl stuck in the project of unpacking her Englishness) because it seems to not want to hide from today and attempts to reconcile Bond with England’s real world problems. Mendes does this by bringing James home. It is rare for so much Bond action to be staged in England, 007’s home, my home, London, rendered so accurately gray. The streets are gray, the police are gray, not 50 but 500 shades of gray, the underground is gray, the corridors of power are gray, London’s monuments look so small and slight and gray, as do Londoners. Of course, the sky is also gray, gray, gray and hanging claustrophobically low. When the MI6 building blows up, I don’t see the red of flames or black of an explosion, but a billowing cloud of steel-colored dust. Gray bleeding into gray. The soot of rubble and broken bricks, the crumbling of England’s most powerful walls.
Compare the solemnity of London’s palate to the hyper-vibrant hues of Shanghai at night or the healthy greens, browns, and yellows of Istanbul by day. England has had the color drained out of it, through age and sadness, of which there are many threads. Choosing a favorite Bond is like choosing a favorite mood—from Connery through to Brosnan, each portrayal serves its various, charming, challenging, camp purposes. I enjoy spending time with Craig’s version because the stoicism he brings to the character appeals to my rather large melancholic side. There is a slowness to his steeliness that is comforting to watch in a film that revels in such fast action. I frequently forget that Craig as Bond is handsome, then a shaft of light will hit him just so and: oh, yes, not quite classically handsome but, still, yes. With his dirty blonde hair blending into his dirty blond face and pale eyes, often when he appears onscreen he feels not all there. There is a soullessness to him, not evil but resigned.
Javier Bardem’s Silva, by contrast, is weighed down by his soul, his whole body lumbering with too much feeling. Bond and Silva mirror each other. They have the same hair/skin match, they have the same haunted sadness, and both are incorrigible flirts. They are brothers from the same mother, born of MI6, raised by M, living their loyalty out painfully, to opposite extremes. Silva’s visceral menace recalls that of The Spy Who Loved Me/Moonraker‘s Jaws. You see the effects of evil on his body, and the locus of his pain, when revealed, causes you to twist in your seat. Silva is a shapeshifting creature, playful in his guises, which seem to represent all of England’s villains and victims. What’s scariest about him is that he is all England’s fault.
There is an all-time high lack of trust in British institutions at present, through MPs fiddling expenses, coordinated sexual abuse by mainstream figures, systematic reporting and management errors at the BBC, to newspaper hacking scandals, failures of police duty at Hillsborough, and the continuation of wars in the Middle East. There is economic uncertainty as characterized by a double-dip recession and social instability exemplified by last year’s riots but felt acutely every day, in concerns over costs of living and welfare cuts. There is this overall doubt of England’s use as a nation, that it can no longer do any good for the people who live in it. England is slumped, hunched, stuck.There is an uncertainty about what its future holds. Ask an Englishman how he feels about England today, and in that passive-aggressive way that is all his, he’ll tell you: “Not too good.”
After Silva hacked the message “Think On Your Sins” into M’s computer, I started to root for him. What if England thought on its sins? What if Bond died? Would that force a fundamental change in England’s sadness? In its future? At the beginning of Skyfall Bond is presumed expired. Retirement for him is death, he merely tolerates it. When he returns to life, you consider this for the first time, distracted by the thought that he is weak enough to actually die. Other signs that point to death: A shoot out in a place of governance. Invoking of Tennyson. Retreating to Scotland. The detonation of Bond’s childhood home. Here Bond is at his most fearful, his weakest, his wavering the highest acknowledgement of England’s difficulties. But, of course you can’t kill him, he is an idea more than a man. (I also wouldn’t really want him dead. Who would I live my Englishness through?) So M dies, as a way of bearing responsibility for Silva, MI6, and England’s sins. Her death shakes things up and then lands classic Bond players in place with new faces. Skyfall‘s end is preparation for a new beginning.
There is no real reckoning in Skyfall. There is Chicken Licken sadness, existential angst and death as a reset button. There is believing in the sky’s collapse, waiting and wanting it to and feeling let down when it doesn’t. Which is to say that once you’ve been worked up for change, you only feel mad, bad, sad and at odds with the world when it doesn’t. There is an understanding of life as a sunrise, sunset endeavor, in which nothing holds you back, but nothing propels you forward either. There is Bond as England itself, and a journey that ends up back where it started. There is the threat and fear of threat. There is the sky that hangs perilously low but won’t fall.
Sara Bivigou is a writer and acting teacher from London. She writes about British cinema, actor’s faces, race, gender and all sorts of other things she can’t control on her blog notgoing. You can follow her on Twitter here.