In the form of Judi Dench's M, Skyfall gave us two things I never thought I'd see in a Bond film: an awesome female character who is emphatically not a Bond Girl, and a secondary character who has real impact on the plot. The latter is almost more surprising than the former, because Bond movies are by nature such a one-man show. The formula is simple: someone melodramatic, weird, and probably foreign wants to torpedo the world economy and/or build a giant space-laser, and Bond has to stop them. Along the way, Bond is helped or hindered (in the case of most Bond Girls, usually both at once) by various other characters, but ultimately he's a lone wolf. Skyfall is the only movie I can think of where a secondary character receives so much screentime and is so clearly vital both to the story and to Bond as a character.
Judi Dench's M was partly inspired by real-life MI5 director general Stella Rimington, the first woman to hold the job and the first to have her identity revealed to the general public. While Rimington served from 1992-1996, Judi Dench's M was in the job from 1995 (GoldenEye) until the present day, making her 77 years old at the time of her decision to fight Javier Bardem's campy cyber-terrorist supervillain using home-made nail bombs and a sawn-off shotgun. If you don't think that this is the best thing ever, then you're clearly a slug, because, well... do you know how many old ladies you see in roles like this? The list pretty much begins and ends with Helen Mirren in RED. And before you all rush to the comments section with your various Favourite Old Ladies Who Get Shit Done (although obviously I would very much appreciate that list), remember that for every fifty Dumbledores in popular culture, we get maybe one or two Professor McGonagalls. M's role in the earlier movies was mostly that of a generic representation of The Man rather than a person with much background of his own, but Judi Dench's M grew into a fully-fledged character in her own right -- in many ways, an antihero as compelling as 007 himself.
Judi Dench is the one actor who appears in the "old" Bond movies as well as the post-Casino Royale reboot series. M's characterisation as a calculating, rational leader provided a counterpoint to Bond's rebellious streak, even as Bond transformed from slick, charming Pierce Brosnan to the rather more aggressive Daniel Craig. Skyfall gave M a far greater role than before, however, as she provides the motivation behind the villain's mania as well as a link between Bond's glamourous world of espionage and the more mundane problem of the government enquiry into MI6.
Although Eve and Sévérine are the most nuanced and interesting Bond Girls the franchise has seen so far, their characters are very old-school. Classic Bond Girls typically fall into one of two categories: helpful, independent women (often spies) like the Mary Goodnight character in the novels, and disturbed and/or morally ambiguous sexpots who either betray Bond after they sleep together, or die. While these two stereotypes are founded in Ian Fleming's rather formulaic writing, Eve and Sévérine are both much more than the sum of their parts. I already wrote a bit in my previous post about how satisified I was with Eve's transition from badass action hero to Miss Moneypenny (which was very much in-keeping with the film's overall theme of the blurring definition of what it means to be an "active" agent), but Sévérine's role, though smaller, was just as interesting.
Sévérine could easily have been created by Ian Fleming himself. Beautiful, mysterious, and troubled, she grew up in the sex industry and spends her life trapped and used by evil men like Javier Bardem's Silva. Bond may be able to help her but she can't fully trust anyone, and in the end Bond's priority is saving the world (and M), even though he finds time to sleep with Sévérine on the way. But instead of this being a case of a sexy Bond Girl stereotype falling into bed with Bond, Sévérine's actions seem far more like an act of desperation rather than her just being another notch in Bond's bedpost, and her death was the first time I've ever actually cared about the demise about one of Bond's seemingly disposable love-interests. Bérénice Marlohe made impressive use of her limited screentime, ramping up the visibly crazy-eyed pessimism as she tried to broker a deal with Bond in front of a horde of armed guards.
Unfortunately, Sévérine was the focus of my least favourite scene in the movie; the one scene where I was truly disappointed in Skyfall's ability to tell a feminist James Bond story. Fifty years ago, Bond walking in on a woman in the shower wouldn't have raised an eyebrow because Connery's (and Ian Fleming's) Bond was, quite frankly, rather rapey -- plus he existed in a far less "realistic" world than Daniel Craig's. But this time round, even though there was a kind of tacit agreement between Bond and Sévérine, I was still pretty weirded. The way the scene was edited made it look like he'd just shown up and stepped into her shower unnanounced, which is particularly worrying when you realise that the only thing Bond really knows about Sévérine is that she's functionally a prisoner in her own home. I suspect, or at least hope, that the creepy subtext there was unintentional, since it actually seems a little out og character for 21st-century Bond. While Daniel Craig's Bond is significantly more brutal than many of his predecessors, he's also written as having more emotional intelligence (not to be confused with actual emotion, for all that Daniel Craig admits to having cried over the Skyfall theme song) than his 20th-century counterparts. Although the Bond we see in Skyfall has learnt from his "mistakes" in Casino Royale, he doesn't seem like someone who'd exploit an civilian victim for personal vain -- although he would prioritise the mission above helping her, if necessary.
sexism is over!!" way because, uh, no, but but more in the sense that the division between field and desk agents is highlighted rather than the division between Bond (as action hero) and his love-interests. In the past, Miss Moneypenny was Bond's anchor to a more comforting view of MI6 -- a friendly face to act as buffer between his action-filled existence and the sometimes stuffy environment of M's office. But while scenes set in MI6 Headquarters used to centre around exposition and Bond's various clashes with government beaurocracy, Eve Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw's Q show us a different side of "office work". For the first time we get to see Q (in a very different incarnation from the avuncular Desmond Llewelyn) in an active, frontline role. Balancing out Bond's return to old-fashioned, stripped-down violence, Q's job as MI6's resident computer expert means he's the only person who can fight Silva on his own terms. And Ralph Fiennes' Mallory, originally introduced as something of an antagonist to our beloved M, turns out to be much more than the conservative bureaurocrat he first appears.
Silva's infiltration and destruction of MI6 HQ proved that there's really no such thing as a safe desk job any more. Although Eve was clearly uncomfortable with her role in Bond's injuries and the subsequent loss of M's hard-drive, she was still a badass and capable agent, holding her own when Silva attacked the government enquiry near the end of the film. Her transition from field agent to M's bodyguard/personal assistant is the living embodiment of the blurring lines between what counts as a "dangerous" job in MI6. And if anything, it highlights Bond's role as the last of the true field agents, the ones whose job is purely that of a Licence To Kill rather than having to deal with the politics of the London offices.
Part 3: The Costumes.