Skyfall – good film, big problem

Just for a change of pace, I thought I’d post this piece about a big screen offering instead of a small screen one.

The review – no spoilers
First things first, just a very basic review of the film. It’s a great Bond film, possibly a contender for the best Bond film ever. I however am not a huge Bond fan, I watch them more as isolated, slightly throw-away thrillers rather than as some hallowed hero that’s been with me since childhood. Even on those grounds however, Skyfall is a good film. The action sequences are stunning with impressive stunts, beautiful locations and absolutely gorgeous filming. The plot itself is mercifully straightforward, which is brilliant because it means you don’t need to have long exposition scenes or just give up on it because it’s too convoluted. Finally, what raises it above other similar films is that there’s some interesting character bits going on alongside all the running and shooting. Finally, there’s a light dusting of understated humour through it giving it all the perfect combination of heart and soul.

So you can go along and enjoy a couple of hours of entertainment and all is well. Or you can keep reading.

The problem – no spoilers but it may damage your enjoyment of the film.
I am not usually one to get on a feminist high horse. I tend to err towards either not seeing issues at all, or giving the perpetrators the benefit of the doubt. So I was quite surprised at how irritated I was during the film at its presentation of women, and how after the film that irritation grew into anger. I realise that criticising a Bond film for how it treats women is a little hilarious, but this isn’t the old school sexism of treating women as sex objects, this is something more insidious.

I wondered if I was over-reacting but this post from Giles Coren made me feel more confident (there’s spoilers in the article). I will also say I had been somewhat primed to look for problems by the adverts (not the trailers, the product adverts) in front of the film. It was full of the usual guff, of 007 Fragrance and the like, but the one that drew my attention was this one for IWC (who make watches and are not the International Whaling Commission). The advert itself is full of the usual snips of expeditions that IWC presumably sponsors or something, but eventually draws to a conclusion with the tag line “IWC – Engineered for Men”. I actually spluttered out loud in the cinema. Seriously?! Who on earth thought that was an acceptable thing to say!? What does it even mean – it doesn’t come with an instruction manual? I was appalled. (and will be submitting said disgust to the Advertising Standards Agency.

So with that irritation already bubbling I settled in for the film, and at first look, the film was ok. It has several prominent female characters and although there are a couple of traditional ‘Bond Girls’ doing the simpering sex thing, there’s also the divine Judi Dench as M, and a female agent who’s working with Bond. Those two are professional women, both doing jobs alongside, or in charge of men. But as you look at the details you realise that they’re actually not shown to be doing those jobs very well and continually need to be rescued or protected by the men around them, accompanied by patronising and derogatory comments.

In isolation it’s possible to see each of these incidents as ok, various remarks can be interpreted as jokes and banter, weaknesses could be an attempt to lower expectations and it’s not like I’m saying that all women have to be shown as perfect (and it’s worth noting that Bond has a fair few troubled moments too) but the relentlessness of it that is either frustrating or insulting. Opportunities for the women to demonstrate their power and competence were ignored in favour of cheap shots and hero moments for the men. I didn’t WANT to feel angry but once I’d started seeing the problems there were just too many of them to overlook.

It’s hard to explain without going into spoilers, so the rest of the article is packed with them
There are five female characters that are given a chunk of screen time:
M – she’s the head of MI6, a position of power and she easily commands the men around her. BUT her competence is endlessly questioned and she’s patronisingly told to retire by a male civilian overseer (ok Dame Judi was 77 at time of filming, but I wish I was as smart and competent as she is). When she’s under attack, Bond entirely takes over the planning and she’s left a passenger to her own protection. Eventually there’s a moment where she’s armed with a gun and is yet unable to defend herself – missing, dropping the gun and getting shot. She makes a quip that she was never any good with guns, but I thought there was going to be a glorious hero moment for her, and instead she had to be rescued by Bond. Then (after being rescued yet again) she dies and is replaced by aforementioned patronising male overseer.

Eve – she starts off as a very competent seeming field agent, partnering Bond and fearlessly driving and shooting her way through Istanbul. Then she’s ordered to take a shot that she has already said she doesn’t think she can make and accidentally ‘kills’ Bond. Even at that point I was ok with it, she’s made the evaluation that it was a risky shot, it was someone else’s call to try it anyway. But. When Bond returns from the dead and meets her, and every encounter after that he endlessly keeps harping on about it, “not everyone is suited to field work”, that he’d feel safer if she were behind a desk. Yes, it’s jokey, but it starts to grate.

Then when she does go back into the field, she goes to deliver some information to Bond and ends up kneeling in front of him giving him a shave and a bucket of innuendo. Well that’s professional, couldn’t there just have been one person that was completely not interested in Bond and put him in his place? The final nail in her coffin is when they’re out on a mission Bond has to tell her to stop touching her ear (where presumably her communications device is hidden). Either she’s inexperienced and/or a bit useless, or he’s being needlessly patronising and she doesn’t call him on it.

Finally, the big reveal… her last name is Moneypenny. She ends the film behind a desk outside M’s office. I’m trying to tread carefully here, there’s obviously nothing wrong with being a secretary/PA/receptionist, and there’s no confirmation that she doesn’t have a more senior role as M’s deputy or something, but given the history of the name Moneypenny, and her positioning it’s hard not to read it as a demotion.

Bond’s Lover – this character is so minor she doesn’t even get a name, “Bond’s Lover” is genuinely what she’s listed as in the credits. While Bond is dead there’s a montage of him living on a beach he’s shacked up with this girl. She doesn’t get a line, she just fondles him a bit and presumably he leaves her to return to his life without much of a backwards glance. I guess he needed somewhere rent free to stay.

Clair Dowar MP – yay, a female MP is leading the inquiry into MI6. What a shame then that Dowar is written as a nagging harpy, endlessly berating M until Mallory interrupts her and wonders if Dowar would let M speak “if only for a change of voice”, efficiently patronising both sides. M is grateful and I’m embarrassed for her.

Sévérine – here we go, I’ve saved the best for last. Sévérine is a proper old school Bond girl in a way that’s just somewhat horrific in a modern film. The set up is classic, in their first meeting it’s immediately revealed that she’s been in the sex trade since she was a child and is the ‘girlfriend’ of the villain, but she’s terrified and desperate for a way out, so Bond to the rescue. He’ll meet her later on her boat. As she waits for him with a glass of champagne, it becomes clear that he’s not going to make it and the boat pulls away. She goes to have a shower. Bond climbs aboard and for their second meeting he strips off and sneaks into her shower.

Once again, I’m sorry, but what? Maybe I’m not fluent enough in body language but there didn’t seem to be anything in their first meeting that couldn’t be construed as flirting for the benefit of the bodyguards. I must have missed the unspoken “feel free to assume I want to sleep with you and grossly invade my privacy”.

Bond’s plan appears to be to just let them get caught. An effective way to get face-to-face with the villain, but not so great for her. He lets her get led away with barely a backwards glance. Next time he sees her she’s been beaten and is tied to a rock. A brief game of William Tell follows, with the baddy forcing Bond to try to shoot a glass of scotch from her head. Bond misses entirely, villain then shoots Sévérine dead. Bond’s response – “a waste of good scotch”. Then he takes down the surrounding henchmen with relative ease and no apparent consideration of the fact that if he’d done that 30 seconds earlier, Sévérine wouldn’t be dead. All this scene would have taken was a bit more work from the writers and directors to show that Bond’s quip was him pretending to the villain he didn’t care to confound his expectations, or to show that he couldn’t have escaped before her death. But it just didn’t convincingly look like anything other than complete dis-interest in her. Sévérine is never mentioned again, her final appearance leaves her hanging ungracefully from a rock.

Looking at the wider cast list is troubling, outside of the main roles the only women are M’s two “assistants” and the cashier and barmaids at the casino. All the bodyguards, police, MI6 technicians, drivers, Q’s assistants – they’re all men. Oh, the tube driver is female. Except she’s not, because she’s at the back of the train, not the front, so she’s not even driving it.

Each one of these elements in isolation could be forgiven, many are open to interpretation and just a little more push from the director or writers would push them into understandable. But they all add up to make me feel very uncomfortable. Why could there not be a single moment of a woman saving Bond, or even just saving herself?

I’m not usually one to make a fuss about these things, and I genuinely don’t want to stop people enjoying what is a fundamentally good film that many hundreds of people have worked hard on. I’m aware that it is possible that if you start looking for this kind of thing, you’ll find it everywhere, but I really thought that Bond had got better than this. That Bond the character had some respect for women and that the producers were presenting women as competent professionals. But the more I think about this, the more disappointed and angry I feel. I’d be very happy to hear other people’s thoughts on this, even (maybe even especially) if you think I’m seeing things that aren’t there.


2 thoughts on “Skyfall – good film, big problem

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