The Secrets Of Great Ladies: Mendes and the Theatricality of “Skyfall”

Skyfall Judi Dench and Daniel Craig in Skyfall. (MGM)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. Since December sees the release of Sam Mendes’ WWI epic 1917, we’re looking back at the London theater director-turned-filmmaker’s eclectic works. Read the rest of our coverage here.

If you think for one moment I don’t have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong. I have no compunction about sending you to your death. But, I won’t do it on a whim. Even with your cavalier attitude towards life.
– Judi Dench as M, GoldenEye

Judi Dench as M, GoldenEye

When we catch up with James Bond (Daniel Craig) at the beginning of Skyfall, he and his partner, Eve (the bold and courageous Naomie Harris), are pursuing terrorists in possession of top-secret information MI6 has lost. As Bond wrestles the baddie on top of a speeding train, M (Judi Dench) orders Eve to fire on the pair, even if it means she might hit Bond. 

Eve fires and Bond falls to his death. The villain slips away, and as Bond’s body splashes into the river below, Adele fades in. “This is the end…”

The opening of Skyfall turns on that particularly English dramatic circularity: “The king is dead. Long live the king.” A Bond must be broken for a new and better Bond to form in its place. Director Sam Mendes signals, before the credits even begin, that this film is about the regeneration of a series in the continuation of a line—something new, but part of a history. To set this off this, Mendes takes Chekov’s gun off the wall where M hung it in GoldenEye and fires it. 

At the time she called the shot, Dame Judi Dench tied Original Bond Sean Connery for franchise seniority and was just one film under Roger Moore’s seven appearances since she first assumed the role of M in GoldenEye. For the youngest generation of Bond fans, Dench was the franchise.  She was the lone carryover as Bond changed from the late-capitalist escapism of the Pierce Brosnan years to the post-9/11 neoliberal realism of Craig.

In fact, M stands for the Metatext frequently in the franchise. She stands in for the audience and critiques Bond in ways that parallel the outside discourse around the franchise. She enters the franchise as a response to feminist audience critiques and begins her tenure as M by admonishing Bond for being a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War…” Always the internal critic, she’ ready to send Bond to his death if necessary, but in the intervening years, her role wanes in importance. Under Mendes’ direction, she becomes so much more.

Bond returns to service in Skyfall after wallowing in think and drink on an island to find that M is not in charge and that the agency under attack from multiple sides. After she clears him for duty, he meets his new Q (the spirited Ben Whishaw) who gives him some new weapon-gadgets, but nothing too gimmicky. There’s the predictable bit with a beautiful woman (Bérénice Lim Marlohe) and Bond meets his mark, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem).

Silva and Bond are twin souls: both the complete inverse of one another, both “raised” by M. Silva went rogue and has now come to seek his revenge on the woman and organization he feels abandoned him, and to protect her, Bond takes M back to Skyfall, his abandoned ancestral home to await the final showdown that will fatally wound her. Though Bond saves her from Silva’s pursuits, she still dies quietly in his arms. 

Despite winning the 2019 Tony for Best Direction in The Ferryman, one of the often-overlooked qualities about Mendes is his background in theatre. His experience has made him an incredible collaborator and informs his film work greatly. M may die at the end of Skyfall, but it was not the first time Dench had died for Sam Mendes. “The Dench is dead, long live The Dench.”

By 2012, Dench and Mendes had worked together on three different theatrical productions.  The first was in 1990 for an acclaimed performance of Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard. She played the spirited but crumbling aristocrat Madame Ravensky who has returned to her family home in Russia to sell it off to an eager young capitalist named, Lopakhin, despite her family’s lamenting protestations. According to her 2010 autobiography, And Furthermore, she was cautious at first around the too self-assured, young Mendes, but they eventually won each other over.

Their next production was a 1991 staging of Sean O’Casey’s searing Irish drama, The Plough and the Stars. Dench played Bessie Burgess, a brawling alcoholic loyalist amongst Irish nationalists. She took on because “all the great Irish actresses had played it, and it had a great death scene.” Great though it was, it was also difficult to get right. Dench hadn’t been shot before. An endearing passage in her book details how Mendes coached her through learning how to act “like being run through with a red-hot poker and simultaneously being kicked by a horse.” They did not know they would use the same technique to change a film franchise and break my heart.

The same year, they did a production of Edward Bond’s politico-comedy The Sea in which Dench played the monstrous Mrs. Rafi, a Prospero-like bully who has a firm grip on her little world. All the labor from these three roles come colliding into the M we get in Skyfall.  She’s a woman whose power is at its end. She’s a bulldog, a stalwart dame who likes a stiff drink. She’s a dame who dies.

Though his film projects have largely explored facets of masculinity, in his theatrical work, Sam Mendes has been exploring the potential for The Grand Dame to critique the cannon. He has taken on iconic roles for senior actresses and used vulnerability and steeliness to reinterpret classics and comment on the legacy of the role itself. By pairing down the tinsel trimmings, he showed the work behind performance in both the text and production.

In his restagings of Cabaret and Gypsy—both of which are now considered canonical—he cast quieter and more interior women than previously in the roles. In doing so, he revealed a nuanced complexity about the inner life of a character audiences think they know well. His 1993 London revival of Cabaret stripped away most of everything, but especially the legacy of Liza Minnelli. Instead, he cast the brilliant waif of many voices, Jane Horrocks (Absolutely Fabulous, Little Voice). Horrocks played Sally as someone whose sympathy from the audience depended on them identifying with her timidity in the face of her own optimism, rather than marveling at her brass.

And speaking of brass, many were unsure of his casting Bernadette Peters as Mama Rose in the 2003 Broadway revival of Gypsy. The role of Mama Rose has typically been played by “broads” with round, loud voices. Yet the porcelain Peters gave a brave and now lauded performance that was closer-to-life and showed strength through vulnerability. The whole production was stripped down, even slowed down, to the very vocal chagrin of the creator, Arthur Laurents, but in the end, Mendes’ staging showed off its objective spectacularly.

He did the same with Dench in The Cherry Orchard. He took a canonical work, focused on performance, and extrapolated a performance that highlighted a deeper nuance as well as the craft of the actress. Like these theatrical works, by the third act of Skyfall, Mendes has razed all the high-flying stunts and gadgetry of Bond to highlight the humanity of actor and character. We are left with ruins of memories and meaning and new territory on which to build.

M: [Skyfall’s] a beautiful old house.
Kincaide, the groundskeeper (Albert Finney): She is—and like all great ladies, she still has her secret ways.

Before the final shootout, Mendes and one of the writers, John Logan, draw the last important parallel: M, Skyfall, and the franchise itself.  Skyfall, like the film which bears its name, represents a return to roots where there is hope for a transfiguration, that there might still be some secrets still to discover. As Mendes uncovers those secrets for us and we find ourselves surprised by emotional benefits plot and continuity can bring to a franchise that prides itself on not really having either. 

By the end of the film, we have gone from a globetrotting espionage action thriller to a domestic western. All that’s left in the end is a lone wolf, his house, his gun, and his mamma. This may not be revolutionary cinema but is extraordinary for a Bond film where things are rarely intimate. Nor is it typical of most action films of the era. Mendes takes the bold extra step of challenging action audiences by using gendered critique as an inroad to critiquing the series as a whole. 

Mendes uses elder women as keys to understanding and learning from a history. For him, they are the containers of cultural stories we tell about ourselves, so to explore their inner life is to explore our own.

Such reverence for the domestic and the classic dame from his theatrical explorations gives the work of Sam Mendes a unique sensibility that is unlike his British commercial filmmaking peers such as Christopher Nolan or Danny Boyle. Mendes uses elder women as keys to understanding and learning from a history. For him, they are the containers of cultural stories we tell about ourselves, so to explore their inner life is to explore our own.

Skyfall demonstrates that having popular franchises address themselves can be done earnestly without a gross amount of navel-gazing or fan service. (See 2017’s Logan as another example.) Audiences don’t mind having their faves critique so long as they feel they are being handled inventively with care.  It’s also a merger of Mendes’s theatrical and cinematic explorations, but it also only one film in a long franchise.

There will be others. Did Skyfall change the Bond narrative as totally as it would have us believe? Bond’s (hyper)nationalism remains the unchecked political ideology at the end of the film and the series carries on in continuity but without the rich tonal registers found in Skyfall. The lack of success with Mendes’ 2015 follow up, Spectre, suggests that this mining of meaning, though glorious, was singular.

It was a risky move for MGM and Eon Studios to put a theatre director with a penchant for making Americana prestige films at the helm of their 50th anniversary of Bond. But though this risk came with high reward, one has to wonder if chopping down the whole orchard was a good idea. It’s effective and perhaps even necessary but it lays uneasy new ground and Mendes is left, like Lopakhin in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, unsure of the good he’s done.

Skyfall Trailer:

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