Saturday, February 2, 2013
Eve Should've Jumped into the Car and Gone to "Skyfall"
Watching the new James Bond movie, "Skyfall" (2012) is a very bittersweet experience for me. As I've mentioned before on this blog, my late father was a big fan of the James Bond series and it was a tradition in our family to go see every new Bond movie on the first night of release. My father was unable to see "Skyfall" because he passed away in the hospital the same weekend that it opened in the United States. I remember on the evening of Friday, November 9, 2012, when I was with him in his hospital room, CNN was reporting on the release of "Skyfall" in the United States that day. The irony occurred to me that my father and I would have been in line to see "Skyfall" at the local movie theater at that very moment if he was not battling lung cancer. It made me realize how important it is to enjoy and savor the little things in life with your loved ones when things are going well and everybody is enjoying good health. I now value those moments I spent with my father going to see the James Bond movies, as those were sincerely happy times that I spent with him.
I know my father would have enjoyed "Skyfall." I was very impressed with how producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson raised the bar with this film and helped to ensure that all parties involved with "Skyfall" brought their A-Game. Daniel Craig continues to impress me with his portrayal of Bond. Not only does he have the requisite elements of confidence, sophistication, brutality, and wit, but he also brings refreshing moments of humanity and vulnerability to the role that never seems as forced as when Pierce Brosnan superficially attempted to bring depth to Bond during his stint with the series in the 1990s. Judi Dench was also marvelous as M, bringing surprising levels of ruthlessness and fallibility to an already established character in a manner that never seemed contrived. Javier Bardem was a bit too outré for my tastes in the role of Raoul Silva, the arch-villain of the piece, but he at least creates a unique and worthy adversary for Bond. The screenplay was witty and exciting and created interesting conflicts and moments of genuine feeling and emotion that were rare for a Bond movie. And Adele's haunting and catchy title song sets just the right tone for the movie. I am sure my father would have appreciated all of these elements in addition to the requisite action and suspense that is expected of Bond.
However, there was one aspect of the movie where Broccoli and Wilson and director Sam Mendes may have dropped the ball and that involves the thankless role of the Bond Girls this time around. (I suspected something was awry months ago when the first posters for "Skyfall" appeared and ostensible leading lady Naomie Harris received fourth billing in the credits. Typically, the leading Bond Girl receives second or, at worst, third billing in the credits, but never before has she ever received billing as low as fourth place as she does here. It made me wonder how big a role the Bond Girls would have in "Skyfall.") The Bond movies have always been unique in the action genre because the women in them are not expendable elements as they are in other action films. The Bond Girl may occasionally be decorative, or reflect gender stereotyping, but they typically always played meaty, vital roles in each respective Bond movie. I've always enjoyed and appreciated what the Bond Girl brings to the entire James Bond series. I am always interested in seeing how each new leading lady in the series is substantively integrated into the storyline. That isn't the case this time around. Naomie Harris as MI-6 agent Eve Moneypenny, and Berenice Marlohe as Silva's trapped and quietly desperate courtesan Severine are almost completely expendable characters in "Skyfall." The only purpose to have Eve in the movie is to accidentally shoot Bond in the pre-credits sequence, causing him to fall from the train into the river (and causing MI-6 to lose the harddrive with the identity of embedded agents) thus setting up the personal crisis that both Bond and M are forced to contend with in having to reestablish their credibility in MI-6. Severine seems to only exist in so far as to bring Bond to the abandoned island that is Silva's lair so that Bond can apprehend him and take him back to London. Even though they each have some good scenes, they are mere plot devices who serve no other purpose in the movie than what I just indicated, and what little role they do have could have easily been filled by any of the male characters in the movie.
The shame of it all is that Eve and Severine make strong initial impressions in the movie. When Eve is introduced in the pre-titles chase sequence in Istanbul, she appears to be an assured, competent field agent who we expect will be a vital ally to Bond for the remainder of the movie. We don't expect Eve to be sidelined for much of "Skyfall" and appear sporadically throughout. Even when Eve has tailed Bond to Macau and helps cover him in the Casino, she contributes very little to that sequence in the story aside from shaving his beard in his hotel room and helping him dispatch one of Severine's bodyguards. And Eve's participation in repelling Silva's attack at the public inquiry, where M had been interrogated by Members of Parliament, is limited to little more than firing a few shots to cover Bond and helping to clear the MPs from the room. Unlike Bond Girls before her, Eve does very little to move the plot of "Skyfall" forward. (Even imperfectly portrayed Bond Girls like Tanya Roberts's Stacey Sutton in 1985's "A View to a Kill" played meaty roles in their respective films. Stacey had a clearly established adversarial relationship with arch-villain Zorin, and her knowledge of geology helps Bond uncover Zorin's master plan to flood Silicon Valley. It's just too bad the character wasn't better directed or acted.) Eve doesn't even participate in very many key scenes back at MI-6 headquarters involving M, Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), or Q (Ben Whishaw), which would have at least given her more screen time and helped to establish her role in the organization. Eve doesn't even appear in the finale at Bond's ancestral home, Skyfall. She is largely absent in the final act of the movie, which makes her announcement in the epilogue that she has decided not to return to field duty, and will be the assistant to the new M (Mallory) all the more perplexing. Aside from accidentally shooting Bond at the beginning of the film, nothing further happens with Eve to make us understand why she is willing to go from being an field agent to a mere administrative assistant. The gifted Naomie Harris, who gave an excellent performance in Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" (2002), is pitifully wasted in "Skyfall." Her role as Eve in this Bond movie is not nearly as good as her role as the determined Selena in that earlier movie. When I heard Harris was cast in "Skyfall," I had great hopes that she would end up being one of the best Bond Girls in the entire series. That was how much of an impression she made on me in "28 Days Later." Because Eve has virtually nothing to do in "Skyfall," I scratch my head in bewilderment at the countless interviews Harris has given for "Skyfall" where she boasted about how substantial her role was in the movie, especially compared to earlier Bond Girls. (Sorry, Ms. Harris, but you're no better than any of your predecessors.)
Similarly, Severine starts out as a potentially fascinating character who dies moments after being introduced in the story. A better-acted, much more tragic and heartfelt variation on Andrea Anders (Maud Adams) in "The Man with the Golden Gun" (1974) and Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto) in "Licence to Kill" (1989), we learn that Severine had been forced into prostitution from an early age in the Macau sex trade and that she is desperate to escape from Silva's imprisoning grasp on her life. She agrees to bring Bond to Silva in the hope that this stranger can kill her captor so she can finally set herself free. Unfortunately, Severine is killed by Silva moments before Bond gets the upper hand and reveals that he has had a team of British military helicopters following him to Silva's island. It seems strange that Bond would allow Severine to die when it is apparent that he could have overpowered Silva and his henchmen, and signaled the helicopters to appear, moments earlier so that Severine could have been saved. Severine is an underdeveloped character who had great potential in the few scenes we have with her. Bond's scene with Severine at the casino bar, where he sees through her veneer of confidence, is one of the finest acted scenes in the history of the series. Berenice Marlohe is marvelous in that moment. Marlohe effectively plays the scene at simultaneously different levels of emotion--her smiling assuredness on the surface masks immense fear and vulnerability underneath--that suggest she is a promising actress of considerable depth. At times, she reminds me of the great European actresses of the 1950s and 1960s, especially Sophia Loren and Francoise Dorleac. Unlike Andrea Anders or Lupe Lamora, we actually sense how frightened Severine is of the man who has enslaved her, which makes her potential survival or escape from him much more emotionally vital than it was with her earlier Bond Girl counterparts. Later, on the island, when a bound Severine is led away from Bond, she sincerely tells him "I'm sorry." That line resonates because it suggests the extent to which Severine is genuinely apologetic about getting Bond involved in her problems and potentially getting killed over it. She has no idea who Bond is, nor that he can take care of himself, so her apology resonates deeply as a selfless expression of contrition. In a short amount of time, Severine makes a strong impression that you want to see more from her, which makes it all the more bizarre that the filmmakers don't take advantage of allowing her to have more scenes in the movie.
A friend of mine opined that the diminished roles of the Bond Girls in "Skyfall" was because the story was really about the relationship between Bond and M and I agree that that is where the focus of the storyline is this time around. It was a good decision on the part of the screenwriters to delve into that complex relationship more deeply. But that doesn't mean Eve and Severine couldn't play vital roles in the plot as well. I don't buy the theory offered by some critics that M is the Bond Girl this time around. M is a powerful character who is in a category all to herself. The Bond Girl is a separate, important element to every entry in this series and there is no reason why both M, and the Bond Girls, couldn't each play a major role in "Skyfall." To short change Eve and Severine just because M has a larger role sends the wrong message that there's room for only one woman per movie to have a substantial, major role when there are so many movies (Bond or otherwise) featuring more than one male character playing a major role in the proceedings. Some commentators have complained about "Skyfall" for what they perceive to be its "Regressive Sexual Politics" because of the politically incorrect manner in which Eve and Severine (and even M) are portrayed as either helpless victims (Severine) or incompetent (Eve). Even though these are relevant issues to consider, I am actually not so much bothered by that as I am by the fact that I simply wish there was more screen time for their characters.
I sincerely believe that there is a way to better integrate Eve and Severine into the storyline of "Skyfall" without undermining all the qualities that make this a superior and unique entry in the Bond series. If you'll allow my indulgence, here is my modest proposal regarding how I think the movie should have proceeded in the second half of the film to allow both characters more screentime. Let's pick up at the scene on the abandoned island where Severine is bound and tied to the rock and Silva is about to shoot her in the head. Bond should've gotten the upper hand earlier, taken down Silva's men and apprehended Silva before revealing the helicopters who have been tracking and following him since he left Macau. Due to his quick actions, he saves Severine from getting killed. During this sequence, they should have cut briefly to a shot of Eve in one of the helicopters hovering overhead, to establish that she is part of the surveillance team tailing Bond to the island and helping to bring Silva into custody. Back in London, at MI-6, after M has confronted Silva in his cell and before her public hearing with the MPs, Bond should have a brief scene with Severine. He walks into a conference room where Eve is debriefing Severine on her knowledge of Silva's organization. Eve, sensing the chemistry between Bond and Severine, announces she must get ready to accompany Mallory to the public hearing and leaves them alone. After Eve has departed, Severine thanks Bond for having freed her from her life of enslavement to Silva. She tells Bond a little bit about her life, how she was forced into prostitution at a young age and later sold to Silva, and how she had been hoping for this day for years. I think the screenwriters should have given her a line where she reveals to Bond that today is her birthday and he's given her the best gift she could ever hope to have--a future. (A line that echoes what Diana Rigg's Tracy says to Bond after their wedding at the end of 1969's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service.") Later, when Silva escapes from custody, he seeks out Severine (who is being transferred from MI-6 to a safe house) and either kills her on the spot or, alternatively, kidnaps her to use her as a pawn to bring Bond out in the open during the finale at Skyfall ranch, Bond's ancestral home. If we go with the option of having her kidnapped, during the finale at Skyfall, Severine (grateful to Bond because he tried to help her) would get killed attempting to save his life. This way, I think her death would have much more resonance with the audience because we would have spent more time with Severine to be able to care about her, and also because she would have died in an effort to finally fight back against Silva.
With regards to Eve, the filmmakers should have allowed her to play a much more vital role during Silva's attack at the public hearing where M is testifying. While she is helping to clear the MPs from the room, and bring them to safety, Eve should have noticed that M needs additional protection and followed her and her aide Bill Tanner (Rory Kinnear) to where Bond is waiting and jumped into the car with them, leaving Tanner behind. Eve would accompany M and Bond to the warehouse where Bond's Aston Martin is in storage and join them as they switch vehicles and head to Skyfall ranch. At Skyfall, Eve would play an instrumental role in helping Bond, M and Kincade (Albert Finney) prepare for Silva's arrival. When Silva's first team of men arrive by foot to attack Skyfall, Eve's job would be to cover M while Bond and Kincade are busy dispatching the henchmen. However, despite her best efforts, Eve is unable to prevent M from being shot. As Kincade helps M escape through the underground tunnel, Eve helps Bond fight off Silva's ground and aerial assault. Like I mentioned earlier, Silva would have brought Severine with him by helicopter to try and bring Bond out in the open. When Severine tries to save Bond by getting ahold of a firearm and shooting Silva in the shoulder, she is shot and killed by his henchmen. As Bond makes his way to the church to save M, Eve helps by eliminating several of Silva's henchmen who are lying in wait to attack him. She arrives upon the scene when M dies in Bond's arms at the church. Feeling remorseful because M died from the wounds sustained at the assault on Skyfall when she failed to effectively cover her, Eve decides not to return to field duty and becomes Mallory's personal assistant. It would suggest that the reason why Eve has decided to become Mallory's assistant isn't that she couldn't handle being a field agent, but that she wants to be on Mallory's detail so that she can protect and ensure the safety of the new M. I sincerely believe that a course of events like the one I am suggesting would provide the sort of explanation as to why Eve would settle for working in the office (and provide even more of an impact when it is revealed that Eve is actually Miss Moneypenny). As it is portrayed in the actual movie, Eve's decision simply does not make any sense.
Anyway, these are just some rough ideas as to how Eve and Severine could have been better utilized in "Skyfall." If they had played a larger role similar to what I described, I would have been even more satisfied with the movie and agreed that it is perhaps the best James Bond movie ever made. I sincerely believe there was a way to better integrate them into the story in a manner that is not contrived and without sacrificing any quality. The Bond Girls are an important element to the James Bond series, and nothing should ever tamper with it. As it stands, I agree with the consensus that "Skyfall" remains one of the finest achievements in the entire James Bond series, a film that successfully integrates genuine depth and resonance and one that should last through the ages. Daniel Craig continues to reinvent the role and set the bar high for future portrayals of James Bond. Craig genuinely deserved an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of James Bond in "Skyfall." He brought unexpected nuances to the role without ever sacrificing the established elements in the character. Even though I admit it sounds like I'm quibbling too much about the role of the Bond Girls in "Skyfall," I enjoyed the movie immensely and look forward to returning to it for repeat viewings for years to come. I just wish I would have been able to share the experience of watching "Skyfall" with my father, who would have appreciated it as much as I did.