Skyfall ©2012 Danjaq, LLC, United Artists Corporation, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.
A seasoned scene stealer – she, of course, famously won a Hollywood Oscar for just eight minutes of screen time in Shakespeare in Love – Judi Dench goes several better in Skyfall, the 23rd and latest 007 adventure and effectively pinches the whole film.
Normally M is a fairly peripheral character in the long-running series, usually chalked in for the odd key sequence, a bit of expository dialogue and occasional telling one-liners as a kind of breathing space between almost continuous action and the inevitable confrontation between the two biggest guns – Bond and the colourful chief baddie.
But in this, the 50th anniversary of the secret agent’s first cinema outing in Dr No (1962) and a blistering return to form after the disappointment of Quantum of Solace, the MI6 chief remains firmly front and centre virtually throughout a breathlessly exciting tale of revenge and redemption set across three continents. Unsurprisingly, Dench, tiny in comparison to her mostly mountainous cohorts, chews up the scenery as she skips from huge explosions to all-out gun battles with all the ease of a practiced action heroine.
How the many male predecessors in the role would envy her increasing presence in the profitable franchise ever since she first announced herself seven films ago with that memorable speech to 007 in GoldenEye: “I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms [are] wasted on me.”
Mind you, M is actually built into the main frame of the plot from the very outset this time round as we watch her anxiously monitoring from London HQ an amazing chase through Istanbul including on the roof of the Grand Bazaar aboard pursuit bikes as Bond is attempting to snare a cyber-terrorist who has pinched a hard disk containing names of all NATO’s most valuable covert operatives.
In a film full of franchise-shaking secrets – some of which would be sedition to divulge here – it’s revealing nothing too serious to say that reports of Bond’s death at the climax of the pre-credit sequence are premature. But not before the apparent loss of her most famous agent together with the theft of priceless information have put veteran M’s future into double jeopardy.
With a new boss Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) breathing down her neck on direct orders of the PM and, it soon transpires, a near brush with her own death spectacularly close to home, it could be that her “dinosaur” insult all those years ago might be coming home to roost.
Bond’s return from the brink, with Daniel Craig craggier than ever, at least gives M a chance to regroup. Briefed by his chief and armed by a new youthful Q (boyish Ben Whishaw,) her protégé is soon off to the Far East where finally – and it does rather seem to take an age – he gets to confront his latest nemesis, the patently psychotic, deeply camp and gleefully homicidal Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), blond mopped, tan suited and with a disturbing tendency to refer enigmatically to M as “Mummy”.
That’s right, you simply can’t keep Dench out of the picture and, as Skyfall (142 mins, 12A) finally returns to these shores for a pulsating climax north of the border, M and Bond find themselves together firmly in the line of fire.
In charge of his first-ever Bond film, British director Sam Mendes, whose award-winning CV spans stage and screen, clearly knows how best to exploit his principal assets, which in the case of the admirable Dench only goes to prove that there is, to coin a phrase, nothing like a Dame.
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David Gritten is away.