Daniel Craig and Judi Dench bring skill to their “Skyfall” roles and elevate what I find to be a surprisingly uneven movie, given the rave reviews. But the film lives and breathes with Javier Bardem, who is head-and-shoulders above the rest in every moment he’s onscreen in the latest Bond picture. He is the one who deserves the nomination heat from the movie.
“Skyfall” itself … I don’t know. Mine is a minority opinion in a world filled with unadulterated praise for it: Overall, I liked it, but I just found the film turgid at times.”Casino Royale” remains my favorite of the Craig era, and the notion some have exuberantly floated that “Skyfall” is the best Bond ever is just preposterous. You don’t need blind allegiance to Sean Connery to see that “From Russia with Love” and “Goldfinger” nail the Bond film in a way that, even accounting for changing times, can’t be matched, and I’d argue that “Dr. No” and “You Only Live Twice” are examples of more satisfying Bond experiences. Seeing “Skyfall” only made me want to see those others again.
While arguably attempting to present the Bond with the most psychological depth, “Skyfall” ends up getting caught in a swamp of its own making. Scene after scene of sullen Craig, sullen Dench, sullen Ralph Fiennes, even a sullen Berenice Lim Marlohe — it was fine for a while, then an hour into the movie, I checked the time and wondered if anything was actually going to come of all this.
Usually, I’d be thrilled by a popcorn movie that attempts to give its characters an extra dimension, but this felt more like a film that just decided to trade one type of two-dimensional character for another. Bond trades a zest for life for a hatred of it, which he subsumes into duty. Dench — admittedly, not our father’s M — hides her vulnerability behind a stern facade, but that’s it. Character evolution in the movie comes at a snail’s pace. It’s the kind of story that might have played better in an Ian Fleming novel that would allow us inside their heads than it does in the theater.
Thankfully, Bardem arrived, and stole the show. He had his own dark backstory, but that didn’t stop him from being wonderfully alive on the screen. Light in darkness, master and victim at once. Without him, this would have been a Bond film in despair, and certainly not worthy of the best picture discussion it has nevertheless generated.
Throughout “Skyfall,” an existential question is continually posed: “Are the old ways relevant?” When it comes to Bond films, I’d say “Skyfall” answers that question in an ironic affirmative.