We went to see Skyfall this week, and particularly enjoyed the location spotting as former Londoners.
However I was delighted and a little bemused by the use of the National Gallery as a location, my favourite central London haunt for many years, I know it quite well.
What particularly struck me was the sequence where Bond meets Q in the Room filled with English 18th century pictures.
In this particular sequence the film makers have sub-divided the frame placing Q’s head within the picture frame of Joseph Wright of Derby’s – An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump and uses the picture as background, and behind Bond’s head was Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Hallett or The morning walk.
In doing this the film makers borrowed a trick from Vermeer (see A young woman standing a t a virginal above) where he places his sitter directly in front of another picture where their head and or heart are framed within the borders of a sub-divided area.
The function of this trick in Vermeer is to draw our attention to some virtue or folly of the sitter’s by making an intertextual reference to the other painting (not just a trick for post-modern artists).
I was intrigued what was intended in the Bond film here. At a superficial level, placing Wright of Derby’s picture behind Q was an obvious reference to science and technology, but I think there may here been some more sophisticated thinking here, a little knowing and invoking a certain irony in the context of the film. The subject of the picture is the popular fascination with science, and to some extent the voyeurism and cruelty involved; the bird is being asphyxiated as we witness audiences reactions.
To what extent are we the audience enjoying the suffering of the players, in particular Bond? This then gives us a clue to the intention for the insertion of the painting that frames Bond. The Gainsborough seems a little more obscure, that was until I was reminded of what we know of his back story (thanks Karl). Typically for a Gainsborough of this period it is a stylish celebration of the sitters and their prosperity, intended as a wedding portrait, Gainsborough chose to introduce some naturalism (all be it highly artificial) into this work, so Mr and Mrs Hallett are taking a morning stroll before their nuptials, most likely in their own estate (if we can draw inference from his Mr and Mrs Andrews, and Berger’s brilliant analysis of it). So the wedding portrait leads us to consideration of Bonds parents, landed gentry, whose lives were cut short when Bond was 10 years old, and in particular, of their Scottish estate Skyfall. However this also highlights his demeanor and his motivation, he appears ambivalent throughout the film, and seem barely able to function through his pain. This is where the the cruel fascination of the audience, as indicated in the Wright of Derby picture becomes clearer. We as the audience for the film are as intrigued by how Bond continues to function despite his apparent dislocation and alienation, as the audience for the dying bird is in the Wright of Derby picture. This in turn leads us to one of the main themes of the film, retirement, and doubts over the requirement for his type of hero in a world shrunken by technology. He reluctantly comes out of ‘retirement’ (which doesn’t appear particularly fulfilling) to ‘rescue’ his boss, whose judgement also seems to have failed, and is forced into retirement herself, indeed it perhaps also indicates questions about the Franchise itself, now 5 years older than the mandatory retirement age for ’00’ operatives.
Bond’s ambivalence seems at its most acute in the sequences before the attacks on his family home (Craig’s performance here is what really elevates this above many of the others in the franchise), as he prepares for what he knows will be the destruction of the final link to his long dead parents. in the end he must walk away from the smouldering remains and move on, if anything even more dislocated, where what few certainties he had have been swept away.
One just wonders how he will manage to continue functioning at all in the second of Sam Mendes’ iterations.