Monday, 1 October 2012

Quantum of Solace

I really wanted to love Quantum of Solace. And, in fact, in 2008, I did love it and it felt like nobody else really got it. Having just watched it again I can see it is a fractured movie with a shifting, restless pulse. Whilst accelerated, whiplash-inducing edits prompted complaints from cinema-goers who weren't sure what was going on, at other times the film's rhythm is almost hypnotically slow, resulting in odd longueurs as the camera lingers on vanishing buses or dripping taps.

It's a little too short (thanks to the 2007/08 Writers' Strike that forced work on the script to shut down prematurely) and this, combined with the idiosyncrasies of auteur director Marc Forster, leaves QOS with an unusual atmosphere. It's more low-key, brittle in places and somehow lacking authenticity: lots of little things (like the freeze-frame, the unusually graphic captions, the ersatz opening titles, the grey, sodden London, the new MI6 staff and futuristic offices) all combine to leave a slightly odd taste in the mouth. Perhaps it is unsurprising that audiences didn't warm to it in the same way they had to Casino Royale

For all that though I still think it's brilliant: make no mistake, QOS is a good Bond film. Although the running time is shorter than usual, the plot is not fatally underdeveloped and the story we get is taut, and emotionally satisfying. It's full of sophisticated ideas (the murky, realpolitik of US/UK relations; CIA dealings with Greene; the intersection of corporate and governmental self-interest), great stunts (the Sienna chase and fight are excellent, tense and kinetically charged) and - hooray! - continued character development for Daniel Craig's wonderful portrayal of 007. 

There is a clear division in the film. Bond, Camille and Leiter (the latter played fantastically cool and wily by Jeffrey Wright) all possess a clear morality, a sense of 'good guys' and 'bad guys'. At the other extreme, both Medrano and Greene are unambiguously amoral. Other characters occupy the confused middle ground: some, like M, are conflicted; others, like the Chief of Police and the man who owns the plane Bond borrows, are venal; both Gregory Beam and the Foreign Secretary, representing American and British governments, claim that they can't chose with whom they do business. Mathis meanwhile is relativism made flesh - a traitor then, but a now loyal friend, offering his perspective-altering pills that make you 'taller' or 'forget, or anything else. He sides with Bond, but he certainly does not share 007's black and white morality:

"I guess when one's young, it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong. But as one gets older, it becomes more difficult. The villains and the heroes get all mixed up."

This Bond can't work like that. One film on from Casino Royale, he is still too young, it is still too early in his career, for him not to be susceptible to something approaching naivety. He has no interest in Special Advisors, politics, diplomacy - he sees only the target.

In 2008 I saw QOS very much as Casino Royale II, exploring the aftermath of Bond's relationship with Vesper. And whilst today it feels like more of a distinct installment in its own right, with a very different tone, and different concerns, the emotional core of the film is still the matter of the quantum of solace - the smallest crumb of comfort that would allow someone to move on with their life. For what it's worth I don't believe that Bond does actively search for such comfort - but I do think that he achieves catharsis by the end, even if it is not immediately clear to the audience what shape his solace takes.

The confusion stems, I think, from the audiences' natural assumption that Bond is intent on revenge for Vesper's death. He steals the Algerian boyfriend's photo from M early on and then proceeds to disobey orders, fight his colleagues and go on the run and so forth. When, during the course of the story, he doesn't seem to be getting any closer to the Algerian it seems as if the story must be confusing or badly constructed, and the final confrontation feels anti-climactic.

But this misses the point entirely: when Bond takes the photograph he might well be plotting a personal revenge - although he denies it ("I'm not going to go chasing him, he's not important.") and he doesn't lie to M anywhere else in the film - but just moments later any such plans are pushed from his mind by the attempt on M's life. The relationship between Bond and his boss is worth looking at in full another time, but for now we need only recognise that Craig's 007 is by far the most devoted and that M is, essentially, his mother. Just as in Fleming's Casino Royale, Bond's reaction to Vesper's love and betrayal is to retreat to the bolt-hole of his job. M, regal and motherly, is the physical embodiment of his duty, and Bond has personal loyalty to her as well as to Queen and country. Throughout the rest of the film, his single-minded obsession is to find the men who tried to kill her.

Perhaps it's a form of self-punishment, but Bond seems to be denying himself the satisfaction, the solace, that vengeance would provide him. One could argue that Bond is merely channeling his personal grief and anger through his work, transferring his emotional pain over Vesper to his concern for M, but either way it makes little difference: for Bond there is now nothing left except the job.

Is there then a quantum of solace for Bond by the end of the film? I think so. Camille certainly finds her own, but she is not exactly the 'mirror' to Bond as some have claimed. Unlike Bond, she is on a personal revenge mission. In fact she has done something which, for this 007 at least, at this time, would be unthinkable: shorn her ties with the Bolivian secret service to pursue Medrano. She shows us, perhaps, what Bond should be doing, what he might secretly want to be doing, but for whatever reason can't or wont. Although there is no physical connection between them, they do share an intimacy of experience and Bond is happy to help her achieve her revenge. Surely he takes vicarious comfort, even pleasure, when she is able to complete her mission? At the same time he takes care of Greene, fulfilling his own self-stated objective to find the man who tried to kill M, and this does seem to be enough. By the time he catches up with the Algerian, Bond appears to have shaken off the demons that were hovering on his shoulder on the flight to Bolivia; although we don't see what happens, Bond doesn't need to kill him, just as he no longer needs to carry Vesper's necklace. He is already in possession, it seems, of that smallest crumb of comfort.

"It'd be a pretty cold bastard who didn't want revenge for the death of someone he loved," said M at the beginning, and it's almost as if she was giving Bond permission to feel. She underestimates him throughout QOS, misinterpreting his motives, questioning his judgement. By the end though he has proved himself to her. "He's my agent and I trust him," she says. And then, of course, at the end, she calls after him: "Bond, I need you back."

"I never left," he replies, and the implication is that he never intended to go after his personal revenge. Duty, to her, to the mission, was all he needed.

There is one final quantum of solace - for the audience. The film ends with the traditional, familiar gunbarrel sequence, bold and vital, red on white on black. It is there to reassure those that might have been alienated by the experiment of the reboot, but it is also there to excite us all about what is to come next. Switched to the end of the movie, it still feels like a beginning and becomes the most glorious piece of cinematic punctuation - not a full stop, but a colon:

James Bond will return.

*   *   *

Pre-Credits Sequence: This exciting car chase is a brilliant opener - once you've seen it two or three times and have worked out what's happening. But on a first viewing it seemed designed to perplex a casual audience, so savagely is it edited. And then it suddenly stops dead on that irritating freeze-frame, which is rather like someone knocking over your pint and then shouting "Ta-da!".

Theme: 'Another Way to Die' by Jack White and Alicia Keys is certainly not a bad theme song. But it's not a great one either. The single version is better than the edit used in the titles here, but somehow manages to end up both shouty and a tiny bit bland. Forster, apparently, wanted design studio MK12 (who had worked on previous films of his) to produce the titles, so Danny Kleinman stepped aside. The result is rather odd. Despite the inclusion of many familiar elements (bullets, Bond, dots, women) it doesn't feel like the genuine article and I can't put my finger on what went wrong. All I can say is that, if Never Say Never Again had been made in 2008, this is what its titles would have looked like. Luckily Kleinman is back for Skyfall.  

Deaths: 24, possibly. Unfortunately, because of the editing, it's impossible to tell - often we see bullets fired without being shown where they land, whilst the inter-cutting of the Bregenz fight with the on-stage violence of Tosca is as close to a piece of deliberate obfuscation as we ever see in a Bond film. We never find out if that women at the Palio was killed or not either. Tsk!

Memorable Deaths: Fields' oily send off is obviously designed to be memorable but is a little too desperate for our attention. Mathis' death veers towards bathos.   

Licence to Kill: 11 - again it's impossible to be certain. Bond certainly gets credited with a lot of murders but even we can't be sure sometimes. Take those two Bolivian coppers - Bond certainly takes them out, and there's even a gunshot, but (and God help me I did watch this several times on slow-mo) I can't see him do anything that would kill them instantly. It seems to me that he merely knocks them out and that they are later killed to frame him, but that's pure supposition. It doesn't seem like he is responsible for Greene's death either, despite leaving him in the desert: I don't think Quantum are the sort to waste bullets on corpses.  

Exploding Helicopters: 0. A plane does blow up, but that DOESN'T COUNT.

Shags: Again, just one, except that it's not even Camille but sub-plot filler [Strawberry!] Fields. She seems resigned to it beforehand and regretful afterwards, bringing a much needed dose of realism to Bond's sexual antics.  

Crimes Against Women: Times have changed since Goldfinger and the rapists are now very much the baddies. Camille is probably the most progressive Bond woman we've ever had, despite being a victim. Crucially, her attractiveness is entirely disconnected from her abilities, and her relationship with Bond is based on mutal professional respect and shared experiences.

Casual Racism: Latin America is wall-to-wall corruption. 

Out of Time: Bond's trip to already troubled Haiti appears to take place just before Tropical Storm Fay and Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike smashed the place to bits during the summer and early autumn of 2008 (but see Eh?). A devastating earthquake followed in 2010, killing over 300,000 people. Meanwhile, water shortages were already happening across South America as this 2008 article shows. 

Fashion Disasters: Anatole Taubman's hair. Fields' raincoat, which seems to unecessarily suggest she is not wearing anything underneath. Craig's Bond seems to be able to wear anything and make it look good, but time will tell.

Most Shameless Advertising: Boringly, we have the same lot as last time: another Sony Ericsson phone, another Aston Martin and another high-profile Ford (an electric Ka!). Most desperate for our attention again is Virgin Airways, who make the bald claim that you can get six super-strong Vesper Martinis (upwards of 25 units of alcohol by my count) on any of their (non-existent) flights. Go on, try it: you will end up in jail.

Eh?: Ah yes, those flights. I apologise in advance for some hardcore pedantry. Whilst global travel has long been part of the Bond franchise, he really does flit about in this one. Annoyingly, his journeys as depicted here are flagrantly at odds with reality. Firstly though, what's going on in the PCS? It seems as though QOS picks up almost exactly where Casino Royale left off, but if so why has Bond changed his clothes? Furthermore, the journey from the Veneto (if that's where White's house is) to Sienna is around three hours (probably much shorter given the way Bond drives) but M has found the time to drop everything and fly to Italy. And the Palio di Sienna happens in both July and August - pushing Bond's Haiti trip unpleasantly into the 2008 hurricane season. >> Let's get this one out of the way: you can't fly Virgin to La Paz, Bolivia. Nor can you fly  with them from Italy. They'll happily book you on another carrier and make you change in Madrid, and Lima. But I doubt you get to knock back Martinis at the bar en route. And surely, any kind of connection or stop over would mean an MI6 or CIA agent meeting Bond and trying to arrest him. >> This one really irritates me. Greene has an appointment at the opera in Bregenz, Austria. He is in Haiti. He takes off no earlier than late morning and arrives in plenty of time. Total rubbish. Next season, the opera on the lake production at Bregenz starts at 9:15 in the evening. It's nearly an eleven hour flight from Port-au-Prince to Austria and, even assuming Greene can land closer than Vienna, he presumably has to leave an hour for delays, to do the passport thing and drive to the opera - it is an important meeting after all. All this means that Greene should be taking off around nine in the morning Austrian time which makes it 3:00 AM in Haiti. To make it all the more ludicrous Bond has to make the same journey and arrive at the same time, even though he hasn't yet chartered a plane when Greene takes off. And on top of all that Tosca is much longer than The Magic Flute (next years show), so the performance would start probably as much as two hours earlier. >> Speaking of opera, surely the great and the good of Quantum know that nothing is more likely to attract attention than to ostentatiously leave in the middle of the act? Sneaking out at the interval is obvious enough, but if a Guy Haines equivalent (say Peter Mandelson or Steve Hilton?) got up and walked out mid-aria, it'd be on the front page of the Telegraph the next day. Possibly even more astonishingly, Mr White comments on the walk-out to the stranger next to him. Goodness me! Leave if you must, but talking is verboten! (She, quite rightly, ignores him.) >> One more operatic observation, which is that various bits of Tosca are mixed together during the already confusing chase/fight through the opera house. We have the music from the end of Act I played over staging from all three acts, resulting in the disorientating notion that Bond's set-to with Quantum's thugs might be happening over several hours. >> Then there are people dining in the restaurant during the gun-fight. I've not been to Bregenz, but I'd be surprised if opera-goers decide to have dinner during the show? Never mind the fact that presumably the performance would be cancelled if people started shooting at each other in the foyer? >> Why doesn't Haines' bodyguard tell Bond he's Special Branch? Is it a secret? >> And how do the Quantum earpieces work? Where are the microphones? Do they cancel out the BLARING music? Hmmm... >> How does Greene get all that oil into the hotel room? Do they take a barrel up in the lift? >> And I would ask what the existing Bolivian water utility company has been playing at, not noticing that water has been squirreled away - but of course they are already real shortages, because of inadequate infrastructure and not, presumably, because of a shadowy international criminal conspiracy.  

Worst Line: Bond somehow finds time to say "You and I had a mutual friend!" to the Chief of Police before he shoots him. It feels rather forced and Brosnanish.   

Best Line: Quite a few. M moans that the CIA only got Le Chiffre's body. "If they'd wanted his soul, they should have made a deal with a priest," Bond replies. M on Quantum: "When someone says we got people everywhere, you expect it to be hyperbole. Lots of people say that. Florists use that expression!" Greene gets a few. "Don't talk to me like I'm stupid!" he shouts. "It's unattractive." Then: "There's nothing that makes me more uncomfortable than friends talking behind my back. It feels like ants under my skin."

Worst Bond Moment: Nothing horrible from our point of view. Bond's personal nadir is obviously being stuck on the flight to Bolivia, where he tries to drown his sorrows. Don't give the man time to think!     

Best Bond Moment: One of the great things about Craig's Bond is the way he moves: a purposeful, fluid stride, full of a strength that is being held in reserve. The moment when he eludes his MI6 guards in the lift and then prowls back to M, like a cat, is superb. There's some good vaulting too: he hurdles the bar after meeting Leiter and he also impressively jumps across the bonnet of a car under La Perlas de las Dunas. One tiny thing, but it's a favourite of mine: on entering the suite at the posh hotel in La Paz, Bond flings the keys across the room, utterly careless. The grand moment however is a tableau: Bond stands, indomitable, and stares down Greene at Bregenz whilst Puccini's Act I finale to Tosca lets rip underneath. Marvellous.     

Overall: Massively underrated, with fantastic performances by Craig, Dench and Mathieu Amalric. It is hampered though by some odd choices, often coming across as oblique and distant. Just as Bond doesn't go out of his way to explain his intentions, perhaps it is no coincidence that QOS itself is a film that knows what is doing, but makes surprisingly little effort to explain itself.    

James Bond Will Return: on the 26th of October! Or if, like me, you are in the US, November 9th. So that won't be an excruciating two weeks at all, oh no. Anyway, roll on Skyfall.

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