Shadows and Mirrors: Otherness and Stardom in Skyfall
Joint Blog Post with Niamh Thornton
In his seminal work Orientalism, Edward Saïd exposes the constructedness and mutual dependence of the categories of the West and the Orient. His claim is as follows:
as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West. The two geographical entities thus support and to an extent reflect each other (2003, 5).
Unhinged from the specific geographical context set up by Saïd, this framework has since become foundational in academic and theoretical explorations into the enigmatic figure of the Other. For Saïd, this figure functions as a mirror that reflects back on the culture responsible for its construction. And it is precisely through this lens that we propose to read the coupling of Daniel Craig’s James Bond with Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva in the latest instalment of the Bond franchise, Skyfall (Dir. Sam Mendes, 2012, UK-US co-production). Through an exploration of the visual and verbal mirroring of Bond and Silva, Craig and Bardem, as well as an interrogation of the relationship between the pair and Judi Dench’s M, we argue that the film passes an implicit commentary on two key issues in contemporary British politics: the war on terror and Scottish independence. It also challenges us to reconsider the film in the light of a star villain whose campness and marked Hispanic/Latino Otherness has a resonance beyond the fixed markers of the Bond franchise.
Two figures dominate Skyfall’smise-en-scène: mirrors and shadows. While references to shadows are explicit throughout the film – we will return to this below – the symbol of the mirror remains within the domain of the visual. The most striking sequence involving both mirrors and shadows is the Shanghai confrontation between Bond and Patrice (Ola Rapace), which takes place in the darkness of a glass building, bathed in the reflected fluorescent lights of the city. A later instance involves the use of a mirror to confuse Silva’s men as they attack the Skyfall mansion in Scotland. This visual recourse to mirrors and shadows establishes a connection between Bond and Silva as mirror images, alter egos, counterparts to be read in tandem. However, the cipher of Otherness is ambiguously assigned throughout the course of the film, circulating between the two male characters. This is underscored by the fact that the two sequences we have referenced here – the altercation between Bond and Patrice in a stunning glass skyscraper, and the climactic confrontation between Bond and Silva at the ‘Skyfall’ mansion – are set in geographical locations marked as Other in relation to Bond’s homeland. However, these scenes were actually filmed in England (thanks to Laura Aitken for drawing this to our attention). In Skyfall then, confrontations with the Other are falsely presented as taking place in sites that are geographically Other. This confirms Saïd’s framework of Otherness not as a means of approaching the Other, but rather as a mirroring device that reflects back on the culture constructing said Otherness.
The similarities between Bond and Silva are acknowledged throughout the film, both visually and verbally. A number of visual echoes exist in the physical appearance of the two men. The typically dark-haired Bardem adorns a silvery-blond wig, thus mirroring the fair-haired Craig, in a move that recalls the initial speculation at the prospect of a blond Bond when Craig was cast in the role back in 2005 in Casino Royale (examples of which are here and here ). The angular facial features of both men are underscored in their first encounter during the film through the use of close-ups. An intriguing contrast, however, is also drawn between them at this point. Though both men wear suits, it is Craig who wears the darker of the two – a black tuxedo complete with silk lapels teamed with a white shirt with ornate buttons; while Silva wears a brown waistcoat and trousers coupled with a patterned seventies-style shirt, and topped with a cream suit jacket. The visual coding of the two men thus disrupts the typical association of light with ‘good’ and dark with ‘bad’ (one more frequently played with in the contemporary Western), and is an example of the circulation of the cipher of Otherness between the two men. This is further underscored in the subsequent scene, in which Silva challenges Bond to a William Tell-style shoot-out, placing a shot glass filled with Macallan whisky – prefiguring the film’s retreat to Scotland (which we will discuss below) – atop Bond girl Sévérine’s head, and inviting Bond to take the first shot. Bond’s presence is framed as incongruous. Positioned centrally, his sharp black suit contrasts with the sandy surroundings and the muted tones of Silva and his associates, drawing the viewer’s eye.
Physical resemblance apart, the two characters are quickly identified as sharing similar origins and backgrounds. Before Silva is introduced and identified as the film’s villain, M shrewdly observes that the enemy they seek is one of them. Informed by Gareth Mallory (a former Army Officer, employed to prepare MI6 for M’s retirement) that those at MI6 cannot keep working in the shadows, M retorts that both Bond and the enemy that they are fighting are from the same place, the existence of which Mallory refutes: the shadows. References – again, both visual and verbal – to shadows are rife throughout the film, lending support to the idea that Bond and Silva constitute mutual alter-egos. Moreover, the identification of villain Silva as one of their own confirms the film’s introspective self-assessment as more significant than its concern for the Other.
It is worth reflecting here what Bardem’s star text potentially signifies in this film in the light of his Othering. Star studies is undergoing another turn in its evolution, so it’s useful here to refer to where it lies at the moment. Joseph M. Vukov provides a useful overview here . He cites, Richard Dyer’s assertion that the star “functions by mediating a specifiable concept to a certain group”, on the one hand, and are “images existing in films and other media texts” that are ultimately “structured polysem[ies]”, whose image suggest a “multiplicity of meanings and affects,” (Dyer, qtd in Vukov: 2004, np). So, should we look at Bardem as a metonym for all Hispanics, or, through the lens of his own multiple performances, onscreen and off, as a star? It might be worth approaching this from both sides.
These two approaches are complementary rather than exclusive. Firstly, we will consider a brief biography of Bardem. Born on Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands, he is one of a dynasty of Spanish actors and directors. His mother, Pilar Bardem, was a respected actor on stage and screen, whilst his uncle is the renowned film director, Juan Antonio Bardem, to name but two of his lineage. Therefore, in Spain he is read through this perspective first. His star image was soon established through a series of risqué roles in the early 1990s directed by the notorious Spanish director, Bigas Luna, Las Edades de Lulu (1990, The Ages of Lulu), Jamón, jamón (1992), and Huevos de oro (1993, Golden Balls), at home and abroad (the latter at least in the Art house circuit). After several other roles, in Spain and elsewhere, his fame and reputation has developed as a committed, risk-taking actor whose performances have been varied and challenging. He was the gay Cuban poet and writer, Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000), a struggling, Galician unemployed docker in Los lunes en el sol (Fernando León de Aranoa, 2002, Mondays in the Sun), a Galician paraplegic who campaigns for the right to die in Mar adentro (Alejandro Amenábar, 2004, The Sea Inside) and a Catalan single parent dying of cancer in Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñarritú, 2010). Although, he has also taken a few lighter roles, including Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, 2008) and Eat, Pray, Love (Ryan Murphy, 2010). In both of these he conformed to Hollywood clichés of the Latin Man: passionate lover, flamboyant and dramatic. In one he is Spanish; the other he is Brazilian. However, his reputation is generally as a serious actor, who has attained many awards, including winning an Oscar for No Country for Old Men (Ethan and Joel Cohen, 2007).
Interviews with Bardem talk about him as an actor of quality, reinforced by the aforementioned family links. However, his star text also plays on his ability to morph into this other Bardem, the sex symbol, who appears happy to play with his attractiveness, as this interview with him in The Guardian with Emma Brockes, attests,
After these kinds of roles, I wonder if it’s possible that the actor finds himself sinister. “Every time I wake up,” Bardem replies, and laughs loudly. “I look at myself in the mirror to brush my teeth and it’s very sinister. Ugh, look at that nose; look at those eyes. Ugh, my tone of voice.” Of course, a movie star married to Penélope Cruz can afford to talk this way without fear of being taken at his word. But still; Bardem’s casual self-mockery makes him seem a very European kind of actor, away from the worst narcissism of his profession.
She clearly reads him as handsome, reads his ‘self-mockery’ as exaggerated, and positions him in a serious ‘European’ context, rather than that of Hollywood. Having Cruz as a wife also complements his star text, they are read as equals. He can claim to be unattractive, expecting to be read against the grain in Skyfall.
In his career, there is precedence for him turning up in Skyfall as a generic Hispanic, as we have already mentioned, he has acted in a multiplicity of roles which have called on him to change nationality and perform a variety of Latino men from Spaniard to Cuban to Brazilian. He is not the only Spanish-speaking actor to do this. Others include Spaniards such as Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, Gael García Bernal, Salma Hayek and Diego Luna from Mexico, and Puerto Rican Benicio del Toro, to name but a few. What is the problem with this lumping in of all Latinos into one? In some ways, there isn’t one. The arbitrary tides of history resulted in a continent that has Spanish or Portuguese as a first language in most countries, and there were attempts in nineteenth century to create a single united republic during the period of independence from the European colonial powers that have continued into theoretical debates, subsequently. In the US political and cultural rhetoric Latinos are often spoken about as if they were a homogenous group (for example, prior to the 2012 presidential elections there was much discussion about the ‘Latino vote’, see here ). The problems with this characterization are multiple, but we will consider two.
Firstly, it elides racial differences. Latin Americans range from being blond and blue eyed to black and brown eyed, and all other variants. They are of European, Asian, African, and indigenous origin. This panoply of races is not necessarily well-represented in Latin American films, which has its own troubling history of racial shorthand, but the grouping together of a multiplicity of nationalities that traverses linguistic and cultural differences, as well as ignoring local historical rivalries and tensions, appears to be a sop to the political context of the US aimed at creating a single group where the reality is more complex.
Secondly, it plays up the otherness of this Latino subject. From the malevolent gun-slinging Revolutionary in the classic Western to the threatening illegitimate child in films like The King (James Marsh, 2005), the Latino Other has loomed large in Hollywood cinema. So, Bardem, as Raoul Silva, is not only drawing on a long history of mis-representation of Latinos as racially Other, but also reinforces an homogeneity to this group that is not there.
There are further complications in his name(s). With a first name of French origin and last of Spanish/Portuguese origin, Silva becomes pan-Hispanic and teeters over into the Euro-villain territory of exotic, dangerous Other. However, in a further slippage, he is also referred to by Bond as Tiago Rodrigues. This is a name that definitively places him in a Lusophone culture, suggests at the multiple identities of being a spy, and the difficulties inherent in committing to a single meaning attached to his name, which further opens up his character to other possible cultural affinities, unlike Bond, who is always clearly marked by a particular type of Britishness and all that it implies.
Skyfall plays with locatedness and Otherness in many ways whilst never quite resolving the conundrum. Another way this is done is through using Bardem’s wig as a key character feature. Brocke likened it to an “albino polecat…draped across his head” and references the (in)famous hairstyle, which was integral to the look of his character, the murderous psychopath Anton Chigurh, in No Country for Old Men. In the way of star texts, Bardem (Mendes) is referencing his most famous role, thereby providing us with a visual cue as to his threat and malice, and playing with both his dark Latino look and his reputation as a handsome leading man. It is, if you like, a form of knowing wink. It plays on our awareness of his star text and foregrounds the role as a performance, thereby reminding us he is a star in this film.
That Brocke calls it an ‘albino polecat’ references two absurd features of the wig: both visual shorthand, one for Bardem as star, the other for Bardem as Latino. It is over the top, therefore, he is obviously dressing up for a role. Look, we are being told visually, this is Bardem acting as a Bond villain. It supports and promotes his star text. The wig in its blondness is also a form of racial transvestism, which, as Marjorie Garber suggests, is a “figure that disrupts” (70). Again, we recognize that he is traversing what we understand to be a key physical characteristic of not only Bardem, but of the Latin man, his dark hair. It plays with our expectations, but through the use of Bardem it draws attention to itself, rather than challenge what we may think of the stereotypical Latino. However, because it does it through Bardem, the star and respected actor, it is a slippery thing, never sure where or how to resolve the racial identity.
The slippery character of Bardem/Silva’s racial identity in Skyfall is coupled with his similarly slippery sexual identity. This is particularly apparent in the triangular relationship between Bond, Silva, and M, which lends itself to a psychoanalytic reading (an example of which can be found here ), with M as the mother-figure and Bond and Silva as the two sons. Indeed, M has a powerful hold over both characters, evidenced by the film’s dramatic finale in which Silva urges M to kill them both with the same bullet, and which culminates with a (somewhat clichéd) reverse Pietà, a visibly emotional Bond cradling the dying M at the altar of an abandoned church.
What concerns us about this psychoanalytic reading is the much-discussed queer overtones of the first encounter between Bond and Silva earlier. In an understated entrance, Silva is introduced to the screen by emerging from a phallic lift shaft into a large room, furnished only by an array of computer servers. Bound to a chair, Bond watches Silva approach from the other side of the room. The viewer identifies with Bond at this point, due to the camera’s positioning over his right shoulder. The soft lilting tones of Silva, as he recounts a metaphorical tale about an infestation of rats on his grandmother’s island, sharply contrast with his height and bulk, gradually revealed by his approximation to Bond, to the camera, and, thus, to the viewer. Pulling up a chair directly in front of his captive, Silva carefully unbuttons Bond’s shirt, gently running his finger along his collarbone. He then parts Bond’s legs, shown in a suggestive point-of-view shot from Bond’s perspective, and taunts him, asking what the protocol is for a situation like this. Bond responds that it would not necessarily be his first time, thereby alluding to a pansexual Bond that has heretofore never been revealed. Reading this explicitly homoerotic sequence – along with Silva’s camp demeanour – in tandem with the Oedipal relations established between him and M, risks falling into the Freudian trap of understanding homosexuality as the result of an unsuccessful transition through the Oedipal phase. However, it is also muddled by the chemistry between the two men and the fact that both play on the sexual overtones of the moment.
That Silva’s queerness is styled as camp is significant. In the aforementioned scene in which Silva has Bond held captive theirs is a playful, flirtatious and knowing dialogue. Interestingly, Bond flirts back. It is not a challenge to Bond’s sexuality, which has long been over-determinedly heterosexual, but signals what may be a new departure for Bond as a polyamorous bisexual, implicit in the dialogue, albeit never visualized.
Daniel Craig, as Bond, is another whose attractiveness is part of his star text. This is reinforced throughout Skyfall, but also has precedence in a renowned beach scene in an earlier Bond film, Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006) notorious for the display of his body and his muscular physique (referenced in a swimming pool scene in Skyfall, where he wears the same blue trunks). In the capture scene with Bardem in Skyfall the gaze is on Craig. Curiously, this positions us (whatever our gender and orientation) alongside the queer admiring gaze of Bardem, which is a radical act in a franchise that generally focuses the determinedly heterosexual gaze on a series of so-called “Bond girls”.
The camp villain also has a long and inglorious history, most notably the camp Nazi (or Nazi-style) villain that can be found even in otherwise exemplary films such as Roma, città aperta (Roberto Rossellini, 1945, Rome, Open City) and in others, such as, the blockbuster Indiana Jones series (Steven Spielberg, 1981-2008). The linking of queerness with evil is dubious, erroneous, and reinforces its Otherness, especially when it is seen as a source of Silva’s unresolved development. However, when it is also toyed with and validated as a sexuality that Bond is happy to (at least) flirt with, the message is a confused one.
A further troubling aspect of Silva’s queer character relates back to the notion of the Other. The casting of Bardem in the role of the villain – as Noble has indicated elsewhere – raises questions about the Hispanic figure in mainstream cinema. As ethnically Other, yet hailing from the same place as Bond, Silva constitutes a rogue element, an element that has been cut out and cast off, only to return to haunt his former site of belonging. Silva therefore takes on a spectral quality, an image enhanced by the revelation that he attempted to commit suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule having been given up to the Chinese government by M during the handover of the control of Hong Kong. His attempt was unsuccessful; ‘life clung to me like a disease’ he remarks, before revealing the severe physical deformation he retains as a consequence of this suicide attempt. The conflation of villain, Other, and queer in the character of Silva is thus potentially racist and homophobic.
Indeed, this confusion of belonging is at the heart of Skyfall, evidenced in particular by the film’s befuddled politics. This is apparent in the shift from the global cyber terrorism with which the film opens – a nod, it has been argued (for example here ), to the Wikileaks phenomenon, heightened by the physical resemblance of Silva to Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange – to the personal vendetta that Silva wages against M. However, nowhere is this more explicit than in the enquiry into MI6’s operations, at which M speaks as a witness. Having been critiqued for antiquation, M defends the need for MI6 in a contemporary world that frightens her, precisely because enemies are unknown, faceless, not traceable on a map, not identifiable as nations, uniforms or flags. While her speech remains concordant with the discourse of the war on terror, its content is rendered ironic, given that at that precise moment, indicated through the use of intercutting, Silva is preparing to storm the hearing, and kill M, dressed in a policeman’s uniform. Her commentary on unknown, faceless enemies is thus contradicted by the fact that the enemy who has just escaped from the clutches of MI6, and who is preparing to kill her, is familiar, known to her, and wearing a uniform she should, and would, trust.
Admittedly, the idea of the enemy within resonates with the discourse of the war on terror to the extent that it insists upon the notion of ‘home-grown’ terrorists, those brought up within Western countries such as the UK and the US, with national citizenship. This is further underscored by Silva’s apparent embedding within the police force – an organisation that typically represents order, and which is entrusted with the security of British society. Following his escape from MI6’s headquarters – relocated to Churchill’s underground bunker – Silva is handed a package by two policemen. The package contains a policeman’s uniform, which Silva quickly adorns, and as mentioned above, wears when he storms the MI6 enquiry. Silva’s use of the image of the police in this way raises questions regarding the boundaries and limits between self and other, inside and outside.
On this note – and taking a slight sidestep away from Bardem, it is worth mentioning Bond and M’s – and indeed the film’s – retreat to Scotland. Silva’s dramatic entrance into the enquiry prompts Bond to take swift – and unofficial – action. Kidnapping M and ditching her Jaguar for his vintage Aston Martin, Bond heads north to Scotland, and for his childhood home – a deserted and remote mansion named ‘Skyfall’. There, Bond, M, and gamekeeper Kincade (who, as an aside, has the most bizarre “Scottish” accent we have ever heard) prepare home-made bombs and set a series of traps in advance of Silva’s impending arrival. The retreat to Scotland thus establishes a crucial dichotomy in terms of the politics of Otherness at work in the film.
On the one hand, Scotland represents backwardness, lawlessness, and savagery – an idea underscored by the harsh landscape and rural location of the mansion, as well as by Silva’s gradual dishevelment as the battle progresses. On the other hand, however, the retreat to Scotland is also steeped in nostalgia: Bond’s nostalgia for his past, his parents, his childhood; M’s nostalgia for a simpler time in terms of espionage; and the film’s nostalgia, in its fiftieth year, for its own history – signaled most notably by the return of the emblematic Aston Martin, but also by the recourse to Scotland, the homeland of Sean Connery, the first actor to play Bond. Moreover, Silva’s inability to cope with the mode of combat employed by Bond et al at the Skyfall mansion – a fact he directly acknowledges when he tells Bond that the only consequence of all this running around is exhaustion – reveals a further layer of nostalgia for a former age in which Britain was firmly in control, both at home and abroad.
That Scotland should be the site of this nostalgic display reflects on the internal tensions currently bubbling on the surface of British politics, what with Alex Salmond’s political dominance in Scotland and with the independence referendum set for autumn 2014. To return to the question of Otherness and belonging, does this portrait of Scotland as backward, lawless, and savage therefore constitute the country – like Silva – as a formerly compliant, rogue element? Or does the film conversely express a wistful desire for the reinstatement of these values within the context of a united United Kingdom?
The politics of Skyfall remain somewhat opaque. Though the action begins with an act of cyber terrorism that threatens the security of the UK, but that undoubtedly has global ramifications, the film’s plot development hinges upon a transition from this international politics to the sphere of the personal, evidenced by the focus on Silva’s vendetta against M, which becomes the central plotline of the film. This is confirmed by the geographical traces of the film, the trajectory of which is as follows: Turkey, London, Shanghai, Macao, Hashima Island (Japan), London, Scotland. Skyfall therefore becomes increasingly introspective, emphasising the import of the internal tensions currently at stake in the UK. To return to Bardem, the Hispanic Other who is more similar than different, the film thus demonstrates Saïd ’s contention that the framework of Orientalism – in this context detached from the Orient and reassigned to the figure of the Other – reveals more about the West than it does the Other. And in this respect, the figure of the Other and the cipher of Otherness enables a reading of Skyfall as a confused self-assessment of contemporary British culture and politics.
Through these various strategies, is Skyfall trying to satisfy many audiences? Is it unresolved about differences, be they sexual or racial, which leads to this troubling vision that simultaneously celebrates and besmirches difference? Then, what of the political issues? The terrorist is known and unknown, unidentifiable and clearly identified, and is to be defeated by a mix of surveillance equipment, out-moded technology, clever ruses and single hand combat instead of an arsenal of weapons, yet comes bearing his own big army and high tech weaponry. The confusion is symptomatic of the anomaly of a franchise that is anachronistic and harks back to an age of Empire, while trying to evolve into something that resembles the norms and mores of the twenty-first century, as well as exploring the unresolved sexual and racial tensions that such a franchise has long played on.
Books referenced (all other sources are hyperlinked)
Garber, Marjorie (1992) Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. London & New York: Penguin Books.
Saïd , Edward (2003) Orientalism London: Penguin Books.