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I spy

Print edition : Dec 14, 2012 T+T-
A SCENE FROM "SKYFALL", which has Daniel Craig as James Bond and Judi Dench as the MI6 head, M.-FRANCOIS DUHAMEL/AP/SONY PICTURES

A SCENE FROM "SKYFALL", which has Daniel Craig as James Bond and Judi Dench as the MI6 head, M.-FRANCOIS DUHAMEL/AP/SONY PICTURES

Much as one has been smitten by the lethal charm of Sean Connery as the early Bond, this new one personified by Daniel Craig seems far more the kind of person one might begin to have a conversation with.

SPY stories have been the flavour of the season.

It began salaciously enough with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) getting onto the secret affair the chief of its sibling secret agency, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was having with his female hagiographer, forcing him to resign. The emerging melee of media coverage would make one think that the moral integrity of Western civilisation was as much at stake here as a potential breach of the United States national security. Commander of the coalition forces in Iraq and subsequently of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Director of the CIA, General David Patraeus, and his Boswellian paramour, Paula Broadwell, are not the first or the highest to hold us in voyeuristic thrall. Bill Clinton outdid them in the risqu-ness of his adventures in the corridors (no pun intended) of power. The media, the custodians of the normative, and the U.S. Congress bore down on him, even if the public at large refused, as his continuing charisma bears out, to be all that scandalised. Even literature took him to task. As rigorous and sophisticated a novelist as Philip Roth had the protagonist of his novel The Human Stain entertain rather vituperative sentiments about the Presidents peccadilloes in the White House; the sexually unplugged vocabulary describing his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky was a bold foil to the sense of inviolability that accompanies that high office.

Media and society in India would, arguably, be a shade more taciturn in engaging with the extramarital affairs of our political leaders and public figures, largely because such deviancies somehow redound to the advantage of their perpetrators as proof of their superior sexual potency! A familiar figure in pulp cinema and TV serials here is the large-hearted, if larger than real, patriarch whose many liaisons place him a clear cut above the monogamous mediocrity surrounding him. A combination of deference and savoir faire in dealing with the private lives of public icons too holds them back. Contrast, for example, the kid-glove delicateness and tentativeness with which the Nehru-Edwina affair has been handled down the decades by Indian scribes with the more explicit or insinuating accounts by foreigners.

But to return to the spies on the media radar these past weeks: there was nostalgia about the spy princess of Indian origin, Noor Inayat Khan, whose blue blood is traced back to Tipu Sultan and whose dashing, meteoric stint as a British agent in German-occupied France during the Second World War, until she was captured by the Nazis and tortured for 10 long months before being shot by a firing squad, is inspiring yet plaintive stuff. Official posthumous recognition in the form of her bronze sculpture being unveiled in London by Princess Anne came not a day too soon and applied some sort of closure to a brave life left unsung for so long.

Then there was news of the British super sleuth George Blake, an MI6 veteran who switched sides to communism in the heyday of the Cold War, broke out of his prison in England and was smuggled out to Russia and has lived there since and just turned a robust and unrepentant 90 in his dacha on the outskirts of Moscow. President Vladimir Putin, himself an accomplished KGB agent, congratulated Blake on his big contribution to preserving peace, ensuring security and strategic parity, and Russias Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) feted him as the legendary spy. It was a birthday that triggered memories of, and comparison with, the sensational Cambridge Five spy ring headed by Kim Philby whose members similarly worked within MI6 as double agents for the communist cause.

Ideologically driven conscientious objectors like Blake, Philby, et al, are a rarity in the espionage game and in any case a far cry from the one-dimensional fictive stereotype of the quintessential spy-warrior of the Cold War created in the 1950s by a debonair naval intelligence officer, Ian Fleming, as his own idealised doppelganger. In novel after novel and film after film over the last 60 years, this protagonist has played the compliant operative whose lot, to parody Tennyson, is not to make reply, not to reason why, but to do and not to die. And what he does while he is at it is what makes the legend. The name, of course, is Bond, James Bond, with the code 007. About the same time that the sundry spy stories were doing the rounds in the media, Bonds latest assignment and exploits were unspooling to enthusiastic reception in cinemas across the world.

At one level, Skyfall is as formulaic a Bond film as any other. There is the introductory adrenalin-pumping street chase sequence in Istanbul, the limpid portent of high-rise structures in Shanghai nights, spellbinding action on the rooftop of a speeding train elsewhere in Turkey, the usual seductive women, and the usual double entendres in dialogues; yet there is an intimation of terminality which gnaws through the footage and seizes our souls. A desolate, chemically washed-out island from where the villain operates, a damp, starkly lit and sparsely furnished underground bunker from which MI6 is forced to operate after a remote-computer- triggered blast aimed at its chief (known always in the Bond canon by the simple legend M) destroys its headquarters, and the dreary old castle in Scotland, which belongs to the Bond family where the denouement takes place against the elemental rawness of fire, water and earththese together, more than the swanky settings and cityscapes, define the psycho-geography of the film. Feel, more than look, is key here. And that is a huge shift for a Bond narrative where what you saw was what you got.

The role does not sit as glibly or indifferently on Daniel Craig as in his two earlier avatars as Bond. The greying stubble on his gaunt cheeks, his erring aim with his gun, and his need to be bailed out of tight spots by his female companion suggest a vulnerability that gives the character some pause and depth. Of course his panache and reflexive rashness carry him through most situations, and the film is not lacking in the hero-takes-all action scenes that trademark the genre. But we almost get the impression of a man of some intensity and gravitas who, when not in the thick of the action, seems to be contemplating the higher truths of life. When Ms nemesis, Silva, whose Nordic features, including blonde hair and eyelashes, and homosexual suggestiveness are meant to render him eerily incompatible, taunts Bond about being a mindlessly disciplined soldier and a dispensable pawn in Ms scheme of things, it seems to strike home even if it does not make him waver in his mission.

It is a throwback to Fleming himself, who often had the antagonist mouth the wiser lines and the hero the cleverer ones. Towards the end of his novel Live and Let Die (1964), for example, when the manic Blofeld (head of the international crime syndicate SPECTRE) accosts Bond, he contrasts his own achievements with the agents wasted life: On the other hand what are you? You are a common thing, a blunt instrument wielded by dolts in high places. Having done what you are told to do, out of some mistaken idea of duty or patriotism, you satisfy your British instincts with alcohol, nicotine, and sex while waiting to be dispatched on the next misbegotten foray.

The chief dolt in high places in Bonds life, M (Dame Judi Dench since 1995), had dismissed him as a relic of the Cold War in Golden Eye (1995) and comes close to dispatching him to eternity in Skyfall by taking what seems to be a deliberately callous call on a risky shot by Miss Moneypenny (the office secretary Bond routinely flirts with who has graduated to becoming a field agent) as 007 and a hostile henchman are engaged in close fisticuffs atop a speeding train. The bullet gets Bond and he plunges to his death. At least M and the rest of MI6 who know think so. But something imperceptibly British bonds Bond and M (some have read an Oedipal underpinning there), and there is no recrimination or grievance when the man resurfaces and resumes his mission. When, at the end of the film, M succumbs to her injuries, Bond breaks down in tears, in contrast, it would seem, to the restraint, even phlegmatism, with which she received word of his death.

The hatred for M which drives the villain, Silva, is contrapuntally as fiercely passionate, so much so that when he comes face to face with her in the final scenes he cannot shoot her down in cold blood and instead, like in an operatic finale, places their heads together, places the barrel of the gun against the temple of one and wants her to pull the trigger so that both their brains will be blown out together. It is at once macabre and tragic-romantic.

We know by then that he was a former agent, one of Ms best, but that she gave up on him when he fell into enemy hands although he did not crack under the Chinese torture (yes, the enemies of Bonds humankind arewhen they are not Russian or GermanChinese, Korean or Japanese) and chose instead to bite the potassium cyanide pill lodged in his teeth. Like Bond, he too survives that terminal act but the cyanide has corroded his face and left it cruelly disfigured, revealed to us in the scene where he removes his prosthetic dentures to show us why he has become what he is. Here is a villain as much wronged as wronging, and Ms death at the end comes almost as a measure of poetic justice.

What makes director Sam Mendes take on Bond in Skyfall tantalising and different is this tension between its surface and deep structures. Even as he endows characters and situations with deeper dimensions, he does not commit himself to those depths. The cult elements of the series are all intact to meet the expectations of the Bond aficionado. For all external appearances, the villain conforms to the outlandish type of physical debility or abnormality that have marked his predecessors in previous Bond filmsthe stunted Goldfinger, the freakish Scaramango with three nipples in The Man with the Golden Gun, the Dr No with steel pincers for hands and with his heart on his right side, the Blofeld with a nostril eaten away by syphilis in On Her Majestys Secret Service, the hunchback Shady Tree in Diamonds are Forever, and so on. But the Silva of Skyfall (consummately portrayed by Javier Bardem) combines pathos with his physiological and pathological condition, which sets him apart in the roster of Bond villains.

Even as one-upmanship in cyber technology between Silva and his bte noir at MI6, the young Quarter Master, Q (played by Ben Whishaw), is the impelling undercurrent of the plot, Mendes steps away from the elaborately innovative gizmos and gadgetry that were a feature of the earlier Bond and restricts himself to a couple of simple devicesa gun which will not fire unless it is in his hand and a simple wireless radio that keeps him in touch with his HQ.

Overall, there is a sense of shedding the conventional, mandatory baggage of the Bond genre; a paring down of the characters attributes so that they begin to look, despite the hyperbolic action, almost real and weighed down by the consequences of what they do. The opening lines of the theme song, This is the end / Hold your breath and count to 10, could as well be the suspenseful, calibrated transition from the invincible, devil-may-care Bond we are all too familiar with to his more nuanced and thinking successor in Skyfall. Much as one has been smitten by the lethal charm of Sean Connery as the early Bond, this new one mooted by Mendes and personified by Craig seems far more the kind of person one might begin to have a conversation with.