I generally try to review films without spoiling them. But every so often the story is so absolutely critical to my perception of the film that I have to get heavy with the spoilers. So apologies in advance. If you have not seen Skyfall then bookmark this and come back later.

M and Bond survey the end of an era.

Ian Flemming’s James Bond has never been a particularly femme friendly franchise. Early Bond was prone to sexual assault and all Bonds have a habit of using women as objects and boning or killing them at their leisure (this is not always the case as some Bonds find true love or get one upped by Michelle Yeoh). There is no way one can tilt their head and squint their eyes and call Bond a feminist.

Yet I’ve always loved the James Bond films. Maybe it’s because my baby boomer parents instilled in me an affection for them or maybe it’s because I find the franchise’s misogyny so blatantly obvious that it swings back around to adorable (like a tiny child you can’t help but pat on the head). Or maybe I just like a decent spy film and neat gadgets too much to be bogged down by the less then lady friendly ways of the franchise.

It was made a little easier to swallow when Judi Dench took over the role of M in 1995’s Goldeneye. M had always been a paternal figure, but a ruthless and less than cuddly one. Dench imbues her M with a sense of warmth while still making her a stone cold spymaster. Also she is a lady Bond doesn’t sleep with and respects. Confirming that such a creature can exist and therefore Bond isn’t as alienating (to a teenage girl) as previously assumed. Somehow she makes the character almost…maternal, but the scripts dulled her edges in film after film until, and by Quantum of Solace she was less that chilly and pragmatic leader of Britain’s chief espionage service and more 007’s exasperated mother.

Sam Mendes’s film sharpened that edges, reintroducing Dench’s M as the ruthless leader that Ian Fleming originally envisioned (M is in fact based on Fleming’s own espionage boss and his mother). She becomes, for all intents and purposes, the primary Bond Girl of Skyfall. And to an extent it is near perfect. Instead of a twenty-something sex object we are given a whip smart gray haired professional. Yes, like all Bond Girls she is in need of rescue, but she has agency and, like my personal all time favorite Bond Girl (more on her later), she is immune to Bond’s charms.

But then when faced with a firing M quotes Tennyson and everything goes to hell.

A hero on the verge of a firing or retirement cannot intone Tennyson and expect to live to the end of the film. And sure enough M dies in the arms of her favorite spy beneath the warm glow of his burning childhood home. It actually works in a lot of ways. Her death is telegraphed from the beginning of the film (she’s even the familiar face we see post-opening credits) and her arc is shockingly fulfilling. Taking us from her ruthless status quo and systematically breaking her down but only to the point that a badass spymaster can be broken. She doesn’t die so we can feel sorry for Bond and she even has the good graces to shuffle her mortal coil after the villain!

But with her death a crucial tie is cut for Bond–and not just Daniel Craig’s Bond, but the franchise as a whole. The most powerful woman in the series succumbs to a flesh wound and is promptly replaced by a younger man.

And a new status quo is born–one virtually identical to the Bond films preceding 1995, because not only does M become a man, but Moneypenny (last seen in 2002’s Die Another Day) arrives.

Before I knew better I wanted Moneypenny and Bond to get married. I was twelve. Shut it. Now I just want them to be drinking buddies and help each other pick up dates at the pub.

She is my de facto favorite Bond Girl. Lois Maxwell’s tenure as the only regular female cast member of the Bond series for nineteen films was historic, and that Moneypenny could somehow understand Bond perfectly while also refusing to sleep with him made her endearing. Samantha Bond played Moneypenny more recently, and while never quite as curt as Maxwell she livened up her every scene opposite Pierce Brosnan.

It was bliss until the VR sex scene in Die Another Day that we all want to forget. Then for two films Moneypenny was a no show. Dame Judi Dench held down the fort as the recurring woman in Bond’s life. I became so accustomed to her absence that it took me til the end of Skyfall to realize that Naomi Harris’s badass MI6 agent is in fact Moneypenny. As the film wound down and she reappeared after a third act absence I realized she hadn’t boffed Bond once and leaned over to my friend.

“My God, she’s Moneypenny,” I said minutes before Harris confirmed.

Part of me was elated. Here was Moneypenny, and she was even a badass spy who went on missions! But then she has to talk about how she prefers a desk job and is retiring from field work for the most arbitrary reasons. Her arc in the film is lost between gunfights so instead of it being quite natural that she stays by M’s side and becomes a confidante or extra gun for Bond when needed it feels perfunctory. Like the film is slotting all the pawns into place to build a new Bond slavishly devoted to the series of another era.

It is a gut punch after the effectiveness of the M death. That had been a bitter pill but Dench, Craig and Mendes made it go down smooth. Moneypenny on the other hand–she only highlights exactly what this film had been about. M and Moneypenny are just objects, no better than the other Bond girl who is randomly shot right before Bond makes his escape. Man, that woman. First she’s a sex slave, then she’s crazy Javier Bardem’s sex slave. Then Bond slips into her shower and I guess it was consensual. And then she’s murdered and it’s shot so it looks like Bond can’t be bothered to save her. Like, dude, you could have just made your escape when she was alive instead of waiting so we would see just how evil Bardem is. We already know. He’s a predatory gay man and a blond latino and thus evil to the extreme (though props for having Bond be super secure in his sexuality and flirting back with the guy).

Seriously this woman’s life is a pointless tragedy.

Skyfall is an excellent film. A perfect blend of the gritty too serious Casino Royale and the more light-hearted fare of the sixties. But in the process of balancing the old and the new the film, perhaps unwittingly, reasserts a patriarchy dormant since the 80s. This is supposed to be all about Bond moving forward, but it feels an awful lot like a big step back.

  • Monica

    yup, yup, and yup. I thought all of these things right after seeing the movie. If Bond is going to move forward, it needs to be okay for young females to watch, and I wouldn’t let my daughter watch any Bond movies. If I were, it would be to show a perfect example of how women are STILL represented – maternal, sex object, or someone who shouldn’t get paid enough/get as much respect as Bond because she’s not good enough.

  • Brian

    Hmm… I agree a lot with what you wrote and disagree a little. I grew up on Connery/Moore Bond movies, as they were available on VHS every Friday night in the video rental store in the 1980s. In college (mid/late-1990s), I rewatched them for retro value and that reshaped my opinion a little bit.

    Overall, I think you’re right. Skyfall takes Bond back to some of its original status quo cliches, and while I love Bond, I’m just not a fan of some of those moves. I find Fiennes, otherwise a great actor, to be very bland as M and nowhere near as compelling as Dench’s Iron Beancounter. Even though Dench was introduced in Goldeneye, her presence is what tied Casino Royale and Daniel Craig to the Bond lineage. At this point, Fiennes as M makes the series seem like it’s just going to be on cruise control.

    While I didn’t want to see her depart for Fiennes, she really earned every pound they paid her for this performance. They gave her such a heavy role to be her swan song, but she didn’t play it as though it were her swan song. Even in the end, I was hoping she’d pull through. And let me throw in that Albert Finney really seemed as useful as a doorknob. I don’t feel that he added anything to the movie (aside from an “Alfred the Butler? Check”). What a doorknob he was.

    I like Harris as the new Moneypenny. I wish they had spent a little more time emphasizing why Eve didn’t want to go back into the field. I thought they inferred that shooting Bond caused her to lose her nerve somewhat, and with what MI6 agents have to do, that’s not a knock on her or any female. Also, it gives us the possibility of Moneypenny being involved in missions without it feeling like a stretch. We know Harris can pull the trigger when called upon.

    Lois Maxwell, on the other hand (in my memory), always seemed to be chasing after Bond’s attention, and on those 90s rewatches, seemed much closer to his age than all the evildoers’ mistresses that he was bedding. It just seemed kinda desparate. Samantha Bond’s Moneypenny was at least a little quippy, and that fits more as to who a Dench-portrayed M would keep on staff (although I kinda thought her repartee with Brosnan felt forced and/or tacky).

    As for the sex-worker “contact” midway through the movie, yeah, I wish they would have fleshed her out more and changed or spared us the yacht scene. I remember thinking to myself, “Only Bond would think showertime with someone who’s been a forced sex slave for at least half of her life would be a good idea.” I understand that she won’t make it out alive (Bond Females have a very short life expectancy), so I’m not too disappointed in that. It’s part of what fuels Bond’s coldness and emotional distance. Still, if you set her up to be an involuntary sex worker and try to give that some gravity, it’s really wrong to have her give in to Bond in the Classic Bond Way.

    Finally, Bardem, I didn’t see him as definitively gay. Flamboyant, egocentric, profoundly damaged, betrayed, and with severe intimacy and mommy issues? Sure. But I’m not entirely sold on the gay thing. It also then shortchanges why he’d need to have a hired long-term sex slave on his staff, anyway.

    So, yeah, I very much enjoyed Skyfall, but I felt some things about it were a step back. I was a big fan of Casino Royale and its weightiness. I loved Dench’s character in Goldeneye and CR, and I wish she had been kept for the next entries. Harris will be a good choice as Moneypenny (and more than “The continually pining secretary who will never get Bond because she’s almost as old as he is). The more I rewatch the post-Goldeneye Brosnan films, the less I want to remember them.

  • hxfgbnkvghn

    All of your nits are spot on yet you still give Skyfall an enthusiastic thumbs up. Quantum of Solace, though not perfect, was much better than Skyfall. I don’t understand moviegoers.

    • See, I don’t understand people who really like Quantum of Solace.

      Outside of the first act QoS is an absolute water treading snoozefest. That first act though? Pretty aces.

  • sheila factor

    Fifty years of Bond is enough!