Back in the saddle: Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Skyfall. Photograph: Francois Duhamel
Fifty years ago this month, the first James Bond movie, Dr No, opened at United Artists's West End showcase, the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus, a former Victorian music hall. United Artists no longer exists as a major production company and the cinema became a shopping arcade a quarter of a century ago, but the franchise goes on. For the first time in more than a decade, the final credits confidently tell us there will be a new Bond film soon.
Production year: 2012
Countries: Rest of the world, UK
Cert (UK): 12A
Runtime: 143 mins
Directors: Sam Mendes
Cast: Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw, Berenice Marlohe, Dame Judi Dench, Daniel Craig, Helen McCrory, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, Naomie Harris, Ola Rapace, Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear
Though produced by children of the American who launched Dr No, the Bond series is now a British institution with a global reach greater than our former empire, and the latest addition,Skyfall, was given its world premiere not in a movie house but at the Royal Albert Hall. In certain senses, it is more British than ever, not only in its predominant use of UK locations but in its relationship to national traditions. The patriotic opening ceremony of this summer's Olympics sealed the pact between Buckingham Palace and showbusiness when the current Bond, Daniel Craig, was accompanied on a mission by the Queen, concluding with a parachute jump into the Olympic Stadium. It is now virtually impossible to look at Bond's superior, M, as other than a stand-in for the Queen, especially as the regal Judi Dench came to the Bond series after impersonating Elizabeth I and Victoria. M seems now a code letter for majesty.
This 23rd canonical Bond picture is possibly the best, challenged only by the 2006 Craig version of Casino Royale, which was at last able to draw on the text of Ian Fleming's first and best novel. It has two of the same writers who worked on Casino Royale and the last Bond picture, the disappointingly frenetic Quantum of Solace, and although they've invented their scenario, it is true to Fleming and the series while making interesting additions. Returning to Britain to work on it are director Sam Mendes, all of whose pictures have been made in America, and the outstanding British cinematographer Roger Deakins, who's been working for years in the States, principally for the Coen brothers, but also for Ron Howard and Mendes.
The movie begins with a protracted chase by car, motorcycle and train in Turkey which ends with the serious, tight-lipped Bond failing to retrieve a list of MI6's special agents around the world and plunging down a gorge as precipitous as the Reichenbach Falls. A somewhat premature verdict of missing presumed dead is announced, but, like Holmes, he returns, somewhat depleted, only to be dispatched to find the ludic villain who has penetrated MI6's computers and planted a bomb that wrecks a whole floor of the department's Millbank HQ
M contemplates a room full of her employees' coffins draped in union flags and we realise that this is a Bond film that, for much of the time at least, takes death seriously. The explosion has driven MI6 underground to occupy the austere bunkers created by Winston Churchill when the country had its back to the wall in the second world war. Here, Bond is restored and reinstated, under the supervision of stiff-necked intelligence co-ordinator Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), an establishment figure redeemed in Bond's eyes by his having been an SAS captive of the IRA who never cracked.
Bond is eventually sent to the exotic east – Shanghai and Macau, glitteringly affluent after staid London – to track down the villain. Here, he consorts with two alluring Bond girls, one black and dependable (the wisecracking MI6 agent Eve, played by Naomie Harris), the other Eurasian and expendable (Bérénice Marlohe). After seeing off some minor hoodlums, one of them in a pit patrolled by komodo dragons, he discovers the villain, a laughing lunatic called Silva (Javier Bardem), a suave Hannibal Lecter type whose motive is revenge against MI6 for not appreciating him. Unlike his predecessors, who lived in Renaissance mansions and worked in state-of-the-art subterranean silos, Silva's an austere figure living in supposedly polluted ruins on a remote, deserted island.
Most of the rest is set in Britain. In London, Bond contemplates changing times and his own future while scrutinising Turner's The Fighting Temeraire during a rendezvous in the National Gallery with the new, young, computer-savvy Q (Ben Wishaw), who provides for his logistical needs. M, in mortal danger from Silva, recites Tennyson's "Ulysses" ("To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield") to give her strength for the fateful showdown with her relentless nemesis. This is staged in the bracing Highlands, ancient home of the Bond family (their 16th century mansion is called Skyfall). It's the sort of place where British sporting heroes such as Buchan's Richard Hannay and the protagonist of Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male would once repair to confront their enemies. To get there, Bond digs out the Aston Martin DB5 (first seen inGoldfinger) and M jokes about not wanting to be ejected.
There's some lazy repetition in Skyfall, the badinage is often perfunctory and Bond is as usual captured too easily and too easily escapes. But overall it's admirably staged, has a suitably sombre look, and the oddly moving final scenes have an elegiac grace and a tragic sense that the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service only hints at. At the centre, Craig manages to get out of the shadow of Connery. He's the only Bond so far who might also have played Alec Leamas, the downbeat hero of le Carré's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Alongside him, Judi Dench suggests she could have played Smiley, which is more than one could say of Stella Rimington.