Skyfall turns Bond into a soldier of the Empire, even though there isn’t one anymore. Literary and artistic associations with the 19th century abound. After 007 is handed his new field assignment in Shanghai, he is briefed by Q at ‘The National Gallery’. The two contemplate Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire (1839). This was a ship that fought at Trafalgar. The artist painted it as it was being tugged away to be turned into scrap.
The connection with MI6 and its fading glory is clear, as is the reference to Bond himself—ageing and about to be turned into scrap by an espionage agency that he has served with such distinction and risk to his life. A little later in the film, M (Judi Dench), as she and her department are under fire at a ministerial hearing, quotes Tennyson’s stirring last lines in Ulysses: ‘We are not now that strength which in old days/ Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are/ One equal temper of heroic hearts / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/ To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’.
All this nostalgia for an earlier heroic era in British history makes this a very different Bond film. Gone is the Anglo-American collaboration between MI6 and the CIA. Tony Blair and ‘intelligence’ on ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq have made the Brits a little wary and inward looking these days. Their London Underground is the target of shadowy agents with no nations, no loyalties, no coherent ideologies. And in the information age, a hacker holds a nation to ransom, as the villain in Skyfall (the magnificent Javier Bardem) does with such aplomb.
Skyfall is a terrific watch, with so much more substance and history than the previous Bond films, but in the end, it is jingoism, and not just of the English kind. The movie turns into Braveheart, the defence of Skyfall, the Scottish home of James Bond.