In Skyfall, the idea that Bond equals Batman-plus-Bourne is put to the test and found wanting. Last time around, in Quantum of Solace, the attempt to suggest that Bond was just Bourne-plus-an-English-accent resulted, once the editors had filleted the footage, in the shortest Bond film ever. New director Sam Mendes wants to combine a Bourne-like lack of quips and frippery with Christopher Nolan-ish solemnity and gigantism – as manifested in scenes of a well-bred orphan brooding, the presence of a 1960s star (Albert Finney) playing a wise and wrinkled servant, a stop-start, seven-act structure, and a climactic sequence in which a villain with facial scarring, psychological damage and badly treated hair raises hell in a densely populated city centre.
Skyfall may be the second-longest film in the series – Casino Royale beats it by a minute – but it’s the one with least evidence of traditional Bondage: no vodka martinis, no double entendres, no gadgets, hardly even any theme tune. The new formula – lager, tonal austerity, walkie-talkies, indistinct percussion – is not exactly insufferable, but if it weren’t for borrowings from You Only Live Twice and The World is Not Enough, and a performance by Javier Bardem that owes something to Christopher Lee in The Man with the Golden Gun, the film would be indistinguishable from the majority of swelling-fireball thrillers in which an athletic hero trots the globe in pursuit of a computer chip, violating traffic laws and damaging market stalls as he goes. Daniel Craig returns in the main role, looking more than ever like a garden gnome who, having overdone it a little in the 1990s, spent the following decade in the gym by way of compensation. Meanwhile Bérénice Marlohe fills the role of Bond girl or woman.
The choice of Sam Mendes as director is an odd one. He doesn’t bring nearly enough gravitas or elegance or painterly precision to make up for his lack of experience, glaringly evident in the mundane opening sequence, as a director of car chases and fire fights. His Road to Perdition constantly sacrificed cheap thrills to rich tableaux, Jarhead was all about soldiers not seeing action, and the revolution in Revolutionary Road was conspicuous in its absence. If Mendes’s touch can be felt anywhere, it’s in the counterintuitive casting: at one point, no fewer than three former Hamlets – Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Rory Kinnear – are seen standing in front of a large computer screen.
In line with its other pretensions, the film has a visual motif – burrowing or descent – and even a theme: the value of tradition in a period of change. Bond and M (Judi Dench) are repeatedly dismissed as relics, altogether ill-suited to the age of cyberterrorism and health-and-safety directives. We are invited to cheer for the good old ways and also to see Bond as a modern man suffering from “trauma”. Only Bardem and Adele, who is responsible for the title song, succeed in ignoring, as all effective franchise participants must, the old/new distinction, resolving instead to inject a familiar exercise with a fresh dose of energy.
Blockbuster sequels and prequels often lead a double life as arthouse-film magnets. Back in 1999, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace managed to attract Karim Traidia’s The Polish Bride and Mohammed Chouikh’s L’Arche du Desert to amuse those without a shred of interest in Skywalker mythology. For those without a shred of interest in Skyfall, we have two clinical, wrenching dramas, nicely grounded in their characters’ material circumstances, that reward patience: Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena, which won the Special Jury prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and Ursula Meier’s Sister, which won the Silver Bear this year at Berlin.
Elena is a Russian exercise in lull and ambush, a tale about priority and loyalty and the peculiar status of the childless second marriage. Elena’s husband feels that he owes nothing to her son, and she feels the same way about her husband’s daughter. Things are complicated by class status – the husband listens to Bellini and Dylan in his spacious Audi while Elena’s son is confined to a tiny flat where he spits, play computer games and struggles to raise his sons. The film, which is constantly enlivened by a Philip Glass score, mutates from ambling Putin-era docu-realism to sociologically astute thriller; Zvyagintsev, who made The Return and The Banishment, does a good impression of constructing a world while secretly spinning a web.
Where Elena changes its spots before your eyes, the Swiss film Sister gradually reveals pattern in its tapestry of everyday life. The central character (Kacey Mottet Klein – a model of focus) is a boy who makes ends meet – during winter months anyway – by stealing skis and goggles and sandwiches from visitors to the ski resorts near his Alpine home. Over a series of tense encounters (with, among others, Gillian Anderson) we are made to feel the precariousness and vulnerability of his position.
What do you get if you cross Elena (long takes, failing marriage, a vulnerable boy) with Sister (a vulnerable boy, snowy mountains, a scene in which someone gets locked in a dry goods store)? The Shining, of course. Those currently salivating over the UK release next week of the film’s extended version have two ways of staving off the hunger. On the one hand, there’s Room 237, a documentary that compiles the theories, frequently hilarious, rarely persuasive, about subliminal imagery in Stanley Kubrick’s film – pertaining to the director’s involvement in the faked Apollo moon landings, to the slaughter of Native Americans, to the Final Solution. On the other, there’s the reissue of another slasher film, the more conventionally effective Halloween, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and onetime Blofeld Donald Pleasence. The film’s victim selection policy encodes American attitudes to teenage sex, but it is otherwise pitifully devoid of historical nuances.