Perhaps surprisingly, I have seen most of the Bond films many times, though I could only bring myself to watch Quantum of Solace once. But Skyfall, I’m pleased to say, I really enjoyed. It’s both closely linked to, and very different from, the other Bond films, and, as Bond celebrates his 50th anniversary, it provides some nice tensions and links between past, present and future. The villain, Raoul Silva (played by Javier Bardem), who provides the threat to be overcome appears from MI6’s past and seems to be on the verge of cutting them off from the future. The plot, unusually, also examines Bond’s own story in an unexpected way, relating to his childhood, and indeed it is his childhood home, the Scottish estate of Skyfall, which provides the setting and also, in many ways, the solution to the dangers faced in the film (I don’t want to say too much about the ending for fear of spoiling the film for those who haven’t seen it yet). I like the neatness of the idea that the past may provide a solution to the threat of the present, although, naturally, such a straightforward solution is unlikely to work out. Instead, the film complicates matters by moving backwards and forwards, with references to the past films – such as the revival of the Aston Martin, and the return of Moneypenny, in 21st-century form – combined with references to the future, such as the technological new Q, played by Ben Whishaw, and the future direction of MI6 as an organisation.
Throughout the film, then, there are links to the past. On the island owned by Silva, we see the remains of a statue of (presumably) a former leader. History is shattered into pieces, here, though what has replaced it seems even more terrifying. Back in London, Bond and Q meet in the National Gallery, looking at a Turner – ‘The Fighting Temeraire’; their responses to the painting are interesting. Is Bond really an old warship, past his prime and ready for pasture? This symbol of the disintegration of the naval past of Britain might seem an odd metaphor for Bond, but at this stage in the film we are still meant to be doubting how well he is coping, as though we might actually believe that Bond might soon also be towed away for dismantling (so to speak).
To me, the most significant way in which the past meets the present is when M (Judi Dench), accused of being out of touch with the modern world and failing to do her job properly, quotes Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ to a House of Commons Select Committee. Not only is she the kind of woman who knows that poetry will say it better than anything else, she also says it beautifully:
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
In Tennyson’s poem, these words are spoken by Ulysses at the end of his life, knowing that change will come, but that a necessary strength remains – a pertinent sentiment for M. This quotation unites the past and future in a present in which the power of will can overcome everything: it provides a lovely moment in the film when M speaks of the serious purpose she sees in MI6, which also links to the Britishness of this film: lines from ‘Ulysses’ were inscribed on the wall of the Olympic village. It does seem to be a good year for Tennyson. Yet one could argue that these lines suggest a kind of misplaced nostalgia for a British past that we can’t hang on to. The film seems to be asking, over again, what role a character such as Bond can play in the 21st century; this quotation seems to be suggesting that he represents history, offers a necessary courage, and can move forward into the future as well as fulfilling a nostalgic role.
Perhaps one of the most potent symbols in the film, however, is one of the smallest: the British bulldog which lives on M’s desk. Linking a military past (WWII) with the present, the Union flag marked on its back, this bulldog links past and present, representing what are clearly meant to be the virtues of Bond, M and MI6, and wrapping them into one patriotic little dog, making this film not only a meeting point for Bond-themes past, present and future, but also the film which sets up the modern Bond as the ultimate British icon.