Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes (2015)

From the breathtaking beginning to the doom laden finale, the 24th James Bond adventure is an extraordinary explosive and epic episode of the franchise.

The spy filled cinematic year has included reasonably received riffs on the genre including Kingsman, Spy, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Man From UNCLE.

Now the daddy of espionage returns to slap down the young pretenders.

Returning in his fourth and possibly final film of an extraordinarily successful tenure, the 47 year old Daniel Craig offers an interpretation of Ian Fleming’s alter-ego at least equal to the very best.

Spectre is fresh and ambitious despite the weight of history and expectation.

So spectacular, sexy and superb in all departments, it sometimes feels less than the sum of its magnificent parts.

Yet British director Sam Mendes is playing a bigger game than merely creating a standalone action thriller.

He’s also made a fabulous final chapter in a four film reinvention of an overly familiar character.

Prior to Craig each Bond movie was a self-contained story connected not by story but by character.

It’s now clear we’ve been watching a long form story which began way back with the Englishman’s debut in the role in Casino Royale (2006).

It’s a bold strategic 9 year move inspired perhaps by the 10 year long Harry Potter series and a forerunner of Marvel‘s creation of a cinematic universe.

This approach won’t harm the home entertainment box-set sales.

The famous gun barrel opening sequence is re-installed and few themes create a shiver of expectation as effectively as Bond’s does.

Following on from Skyfall (2012), a message from beyond the grave sends 007 off-piste and outside the law.

As he follows a trail of clues from Rome, to Austria and Morocco, he once more encounters the deadly Quantum organisation.

It’s a procession vodka martini’s, dangerous women, gorgeous locations, terrific stunts, powerful henchmen and a completely cuckoo villain. Bond’s car is quite beautiful even by his standards.

There’s paranoia, conspiracy, betrayal, torture, sex and death.

And as a riposte to those who suggest Craig’s interpretation lacks humour, it’s also very funny.

A trio of European stars add indispensable talent and glamour.

As the oldest actress to be cast opposite Bond, Monica Bellucci’s widow riffs on a character on in The Italian Job (1969).

Lea Seydoux is an excellent foil and Christoph Waltz mercifully keeps a firm hand on his inclination to camp.

An intelligent script works hard to give ample screen time to Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw who return as MI6 stalwarts Moneypenny, M and Q.

They also contribute to the two and a half hour running time and if anything was to be trimmed, it would be this extra muscle.

As cinema owners will be forced to have fewer screenings per day to accommodate Bond’s length, it will be interesting to see if this affects the box office.

This potential shortfall may be compensated for by more expensive IMAX tickets. The opening Mexico sequence certainly warrants the extra cost to the cinema-goer.

It’s dynamically photographed by Dutch-Swedish Hoyte van Hoytema. His work on Interstellar (2014) was one of the few high points of Chris Nolan’s pompous ego trip.

But here the rich wreaths of shadows he wraps around the players are more reminiscent of his glorious work which contributed so much to the success of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).

Sam Smith’s theme song sounds thin on the radio but works well in situ over the sensual opening titles.

Mendes encourages his actors to play every scene as if it’s their last. Which for Daniel Craig, may well be the case.

The mythical James Bond, 007

BOND AND KING ARTHUR

King Arthur

In the 23rd James Bond thriller,  Skyfall, director Sam Mendes sought to elevate super spy James Bond, from mere Hollywood action star, to a heroic symbol for England.

By employing poetry, imagery and story elements of Arthurian legend, Mendes stretches an umbilical cord through time to connect Britain’s most modern fictitious national hero, Bond, with it’s most ancient and legendary, King Arthur.

In Le Morte d’Arthur (pub. 1485), Thomas Malory codified the legend of King Arthur from disparate sources and established what we now consider to be the definitive legend.

Arthur is an orphan who wields a weapon only he can command and must fight a traitor, his step-brother Modred, to save his kingdom. Arthur is betrayed by a woman, is mortally wounded in action and hidden away from the world by the lady in the lake. There he will await until his return to once again rescue his land at the hour of his country’s greatest need.

In Skyfall these events and all occur, though not in this order, and are there to subliminally underscore how mythical Bond is.

In the pre-title sequence we see Bond shot by fellow agent Eve, before falling into a river and being pulled under water by a godlike female hand. Being brought low by a woman named Eve is obviously a very Christian idea, reminding us how closely Arthurian legend deliberately echoes the story of Jesus Christ, his betrayal, death and his resurrection.Skyfall

Bond undergoes a symbolic Christian death at the hands of his followers, but remains in limbo waiting to be reborn. He only returns from the dead , when England is threatened by terrorists lead by a former British agent.

In Skyfall Bond/Arthur are tasked with defending Britain from Javier Bardem’s Silva/Mordred. All are orphans raised to be warriors.De la croix

And just as Arthur and Mordred were related, so we have lots of references to Judi Dench’s M as their metaphorical mother.

Bond is revealed to have a birth mother with the name De la Croix.

De la Croix translates as ‘Of the cross’ and so ties in with the idea of resurrection. This feeds neatly into the conceit of Bond regenerating every time a new actor assumes the role.

It’s also a nod to Ian Fleming’s socialite mother, Evelyn Beatrice St. Croix Rose.

Bond’s Merlin figure of course, is Ben Whishaw’s Q. He provides Bond with a pistol registered to his unique palm print so only he can use it. It’s an updated Excalibur, the sword in the stone.

Bond sails through a dragon’s mouth prior to sleeping with his enemy’s mistress.

Dragon mouth

Compare this to how Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon has Merlin invoke the Dragon’s breath to seduce lgrayne, the wife of Duke of CornwalI. John Boorman vividly illustrates this in his excellent telling of the Arthurian legend, in 1981’s Excalibur .

We hear how following the loss of his parents, the barely  teenage Bond spent three days in a tunnel before emerging an adult. An echo of the vigil an aspiring knight had to endure before being allowed to join the chivalric order.

Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson wrote a cycle of narrative poems concerning King Arthur called Idylls of the King (pub. 1859). This is the pertinence of Judi Dench’s M quoting Tennyson as Bond races to her rescue.

All we’re missing is a character called Mallory to appear and oops, that just happens to be the new M’s real name.Fiennes

I don’t believe a director as erudite as Mendes would incorporate these details by coincidence. It would almost impossible to do so by accident.

These details in the subtext of the film echo in the subconsciousness of the viewer. They reinforce the idea of Bond as heroic saviour of the British people.

The conflation of Bond and Arthur places 007 at the centre of British literary, cinematic and Christian cultural tradition, elevating him from the contemporary to the mythical, the once and future king of the franchise.