Tuesday, 27 October 2015

"We are two dead men, enjoying our evening": A Review of Spectre (2015)

Spectre is a cartoonishly silly name for an organisation - the kind an eleven-year-old would plump for as being impossibly cool and helpfully meaningless - but a terrifically apposite name for the fourth James Bond film starring Daniel Craig, released in the UK today. In almost every sense apart from the supernatural, this movie is soaked in mortality and concerned with the effect of ghosts breaking into the everyday. Right from the Salvador-Dali-esque surrealism of the Day of the Dead opening in Mexico City, in which impossibly glamorous socialites - our hero included - strut to funky Latino music all the while dressed in skeleton costumes and creepy skull-masks, this is a film obsessed with death as set alongside beauty. It's there in all Bond films, of course, and to point out that an action film has a lot of good-looking people and a lot of dying is clearly a non-point. But rarely has a Bond film been this introspective on the matter. Not only are we presented with a dusty, almost dream-like vision of an entire city filled with dead men walking to open the film, but there is also the symbolism of the film's title, the return of a childhood friend long since believed dead, and numerous nods back to previous deceased characters from Craig's tenure as 007.

The absence of Judi Dench's M, for instance, haunts the story's opening. Bond watches her deliver a final message from beyond the grave, and comments "even death couldn't stop her doing her job". He travels to the funeral of Marco Sciarra in Rome, watches the priest carry out the funeral rites, and then consoles his stylish widow by falling back on the only way he knows. Deceased flotsam and jetsam from previous Bond films - Casino Royale (2006)'s Vesper Lynd, for instance, possibly the franchise's single best co-star - are name-checked, Skyfall (2012)'s Raoul Silva is seen pictured along with Le Chiffre, and Quantum of Solace (2008)'s Mr White returns in a rather haunting scene which ends in his suicide ("we are two dead men, enjoying our evening", he tells Bond, moments before pulling the trigger). This last development sees Bond paired with White's daughter, Madeleine Swann, for much of the rest of the film, and thus results in a tender scene in which both characters find themselves surrounded by the ephemera of loss - Swann by photographs of herself and her father in happier years, and Bond by a videotape of Vesper Lynd's interrogation. Haunted by their spectres, the characters avoid eye contact in Sam Mendes' sharply framed shots, all dust-motes and mood lighting. 

...and then, of course, they get on a train out into the desert, wear implausibly stylish clothes, and beat the crap out of a gargantuan mute henchman. Such is the dual path trodden by Spectre throughout - attempting both a rather more sobering vision of the Bond franchise than we have seen of late, yet counterbalancing this with all the action, stunts and flair cinema-goers would expect. On the whole, it's a balance that works well, even if it cleaves too closely to a predictable formula for my liking. It is arguably churlish to complain about repeating a formula that is quite clearly one of the most commercially successful of all time, especially when in practice it is a formula with innumerable permutations - there are countless cityscapes Bond can fly helicopters over, after all, and countless actresses you can cast as his lover this time round - and yet a little part of me couldn't help wondering what Spectre would have been like as a braver film, something on the level of Casino Royale. Instead, its plot (co-authored by four individuals, perhaps explaining some of the slightly awkward beat transitions) stutters through the fairly familiar routes we all know well by now ("explosive opening sequence in which Bond does something necessary but that looks bad - jaunt back to London where he is reprimanded by superiors and told to lie low - sequence in which he inevitably ignores them and goes off to do his own solo investigations" et cetera). This is, I repeat, no particular weakness of Spectre, although it's no strength either. It is not an important Bond film in the way Casino Royale was.

And yet, in spite of itself, the film is still entertaining. In some senses it is a less crowd-pleasing film than Skyfall, but packs a slightly tougher punch. The two films share a similar concern with what it really means to be a Bond film or a Bond hero in a more connected age that is slightly growing out of the need for such individualist heroics, and yet both films remain immutably fixed in the 1950s legacy of Fleming's original creation, as of course they must. With discussions of worldwide surveillance to the fore, there's a feeling that Mendes is telling a similar story to the one he told last time round, but with that extra grit borrowed from Casino Royale's greatest heights. Mendes' control of his camera is obviously extremely taut, with a beautiful, cinematic eye for almost every single one of his action sequences, while he brings the Moroccan desert and the snowy Austrian slopes to life with breathtaking clarity and minimal fuss. The script is rife with fun lines and clever jokes (a drunken confrontation with a rat that culminates in "Who sent you? Who are you working for?" is a highlight), but also suffuses its central character with a somewhat unexpected tenderness that Craig is just about able to get away with - closing White's eyes after his death, for instance - amid his grittier take on Bond. Take, for instance, one of the film's best lines: "A licence to kill is also a licence not to kill." This challenge to the more mindless action of other films - pitching a defence of the whole 00 concept as it comes under threat - thus positions Bond as a hero who knows when not to pull the trigger. This rears its head in several scenes, but comes to a head when he chooses not to shoot Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the arch-villain to end all arch-villains, at the film's climax, in a direct echo of Swann's refusal to use a gun earlier in the film. 

Christoph Waltz gives a delightfully mad performance as Blofeld, knocking the previous film's Silva into a cocked hat, while Moriarty Andrew Scott provides solid backup as Max Denbigh, even if the filmmakers clearly hired him with the words "do exactly what you did on Sherlock, but minus the Irish accent, and no one will know you're a secret villain" (on the plus side, he gets the nickname C, which provides the biggest laugh of the night. You've probably already guessed it). Similarly, Fiennes' M and Whishaw's Q work wonders with their enlarged roles, keeping them plausibly human when they need to be but entertainingly comic-book-ish when the scenes require it. The film's two love interests - Monica Bellucci's really-not-that-grieving-any-more widow and Lea Seydoux's sultry yet vulnerable Madeleine Swann - are reasonably successful, although both pale in comparison to the continually-mentioned Vesper Lynd, which makes the apparent earnestness of Swann and Bond's emotional attachment feel a little unearned, especially in a film which goes out of its way to remind us of quite how close James was to Vesper. 

This feels like the final Bond film to star Daniel Craig, although it is believed he has signed on for one more. Perhaps it is in part the way Spectre wraps up loose ends from elsewhere in his tenure, and provides the final showdown with the man who has been behind Le Chiffre, Quantum and the cyber-terrorism of Raoul Silva. But it may also be the film's obsession with the spectres that loom over all these characters, however much they are cyphers in adrenalin-fuelled action sequences. The film's end note sums it all up. James chooses not to shoot Blofeld, and walks off into London with his new lover, complete with an Aston that's to die for. They might be skeleton masks in a world where death is likely to come sooner rather than later, but until they end up as scarred and twisted as Blofeld perhaps it would be best that they have a rollicking good time, critics be damned. Let sparks fly and devils dare and swashes be buckled. These are two dead people, but they're enjoying their evening.

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