How Sam Mendes borrowed from his King Lear production at the National Theatre when making his second James Bond film, Spectre.
When Daniel Craig took over James Bond in Casino Royale, the franchise became more personal and fatalistic. By the end of Director Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, Bond had lost nearly everything — the woman he loved, his closest ally and mentor, and even his once infallible body — making it the franchise’s deepest and darkest film. With Spectre, the franchise turns back to its roots while still giving Bond personal stakes. It’s packed full of cheeky humour, flimsy plot with careless threads, and impeccable style. The script is frequently dumb, but the craftsmanship on display is impeccable. Shot in 35mm, cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) employs a limited colour scheme of silver, gold, black, and white, making the visual style itself a callback to early Bond films.
If Skyfall strove to prove that an aging 007 was still useful, Spectre opens with a memento mori questioning the relevance of Bond’s entire line of work. The gloriously choreographed opening set piece finds Bond, clad in a skeleton-printed tuxedo, wading against the current of thousands of celebrants in a Mexican Day of the Dead parade. On his return to London, he discovers that field agents have been made redundant in an increasingly technological age of spying. Even the dashing new M (Ralph Fiennes) finds his job threatened by a computer visionary (Andrew Scott) with a sophisticated drone surveillance scheme.
In his second entry into the franchise, Mendes continues to make Bond his own by magnifying the lushly theatrical approach he brought to Skyfall. He’s designed the sets for dramatic entrances, and blocked his actors with the precision of a play. He tells the story by showing how actors physically relate to one another and the space they’re in, rather than through quick cuts and fancy camera moves. Once again, he’s attracted talented actors who wring meaning from dialogue that could be cheesy. A single frame might be crammed with three world-class Hamlets (Rory Kinnear, Ben Whishaw, and Ralph Fiennes), or a who’s who of film and theatre greats (Naomie Harris, Léa Seydoux, Andrew Scott).
Men watching computer screens are the new spies. A man with a license to kill is a relic of the past. This time around, Bond’s mission comes from the former M (Judi Dench), beyond the grave, rather than official government orders. Even Q (Ben Whishaw) refuses to give him the latest gadget-filled car because he’s been grounded from field work. M has sent Bond to track down Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a nefarious businessman with a decades-old vendetta against Bond. Fittingly, he is also presumed dead. Although Oberhauser is a relatively bland villain compared to Javier Bardem’s Silva,
Mendes constantly boosts our sense of Oberhauser’s villainy through dramatic staging that simultaneously undermines Bond’s power. Mendes stages the scenes with Oberhauser and his minions to feel physically intimidating, despite Oberhauser’s underwhelming presence. When we first meet him, he emerges from golden light in silhouette through fifty-foot high double doors — a grand entrance. Mendes draws out the wait to see his face as long as possible. Oberhauser’s surveillance headquarters consist of several long hallways radiating from a central chamber, each of which is lined with black-clad personnel watching monitors at their desks.
Having spent his Bond interregnum directing King Lear at the National Theatre, Mendes uses that work as inspiration for staging the scenes at Oberhauser’s headquarters. In his Lear, Mendes kept Lear’s black-clad knights on the periphery of the stage so that we could feel their presence throughout. He achieves the same effect in Spectre when Oberhauser calls his staff to attention and they rise, suddenly forming a black-clad army. Bond — and by extension, the audience — finds himself physically surrounded by an ominous surveillance state.
Meanwhile, Mendes does everything he can to weaken our perception of Bond. Each location in the film — whether it’s the tall Roman columns at the site of a funeral or the forest of towering trees where a chase sequence occurs — has been chosen for its imposing scale compared to Bond. In his effort to take down Oberhauser, Bond doesn’t have the support of MI6, though he does coerce Q and Moneypenny into doing him some favours. When tasked with protecting Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) from Oberhauser’s henchmen, she’s reluctant to accept his help, dressing him down throughout their entire first encounter. Bond’s obvious weaknesses make Oberhauser seem like an even more powerful villain.
As we round out Craig’s contribution to the Bond franchise, Mendes persistently reminds us that prying eyes are everywhere, Mendes repeatedly sets scenes in places with striking circular geometry. There’s the circular courtyard at the centre of MI6, where Bond finds himself literally surrounded by surveillance buildings. The new MI5-MI6 headquarters are cylindrical with winding staircases and a tall atrium — everyone can look down at the lobby. And even when we follow a truck driving, it’s around a roundabout.
The circular imagery is also a reminder that we’re coming full circle, as the film connects the dots between the other Craig films. Spectre draws connections between the villains of all four Craig films, however silly, while also being the potentially final chapter in Bond’s career as 007. He’s forced to contend with his place in the world and what he wants from life. There’s a reason this is the most romantic film of the series, and the only one to give Bond a romantic interest, Madeleine Swann, who can meet him on his level.
Swann is the first woman in Bond’s life since Vesper Lynd (Eva Green in Casino Royale) for whom the title “Bond Girl” feels not just outdated but inaccurate. She’s smart, educated, and self-sufficient. She may need the occasional rescue, but we never see her kicking and screaming. And as an assassin’s daughter, she’s the one woman who may actually be able to understand Bond. Unlike Rebecca Ferguson’s similarly kick-ass Ilsa in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, the camera never leers at Seydoux for a gratuitous flash of cleavage or leg. Instead, her costumes are more akin to the original Ilsa of Casablanca: classic, simple, and stunning. Her agency feels like a revelation for a franchise steeped in misogyny. Of course, I could complain.
At two hours and thirty minutes, the film is pushing its luck — it doesn’t drag, but there’s not much driving it forward. Plot threads get picked up and dropped all over the place. One of the franchise’s biggest assets, Rory Kinnear, spends his time chauffeuring the other characters around. I never got the jolt of energy or the thrill of reinvention the way I did with Skyfall. But spending a couple of hours with impeccably dressed (even for the Bond franchise), amazingly talented, and utterly gorgeous stars doing stagy acting is a damn fine way to pass an evening.