**** (out of five)
Daniel Craig’s final film as James Bond is a visually dark, contemplative, adult affair that seeks to conclude a four-film arc, marking out Craig’s tenure as a sort of self-contained series within the larger franchise. Its plot directly links it to the previous three films, and there’s no doubt that this approach, given that Craig has said “never again”, carries a strong sense of story satisfaction. It has been carefully wrought.
I suspect it will go down as the third best of Craig’s lot; it is simply not as thrilling and fresh as Casino Royale, nor as charming and jittery as Skyfall. (I still maintain Quantum of Solace is a fine film with the second-best action set-piece of the four, but there’s no denying that its plotting, affected by the writer’s strike of the time, is lacking). Spectre will not be remembered for its action – none of its set pieces are top grade – but it has very strong characters, and, joining On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale, a powerful love interest for Bond. Indeed, this is one of the “romance ones”, and that romance is the film’s strongest element.
The object of Bond’s affection here – and we’re deeply in the zone of May/December (the much touted, respectably aged Monica Bellucci has a tiny part and is not the love interest) – is Madeleine Swann, played superbly by Léa Seydoux. Like many a Bond companion, she’s a little girl who has lost her daddy, and her love for Bond must be seen through the prism of a replacement father figure; Craig’s famously blonde hair is actually grey in this film, and he’s looking his age, which is much greater than hers. Nevertheless, their relationship is touching and believable, and director Sam Mendes is not afraid to let it breathe (which, when you consider how speedy most action films are these days, is pretty brave). The best scene in the film is the quietest. Bond has been really screwed up since Vesper Lynd bit the bullet, and it’s remarkably touching to see his mad iciness begin to thaw.
Tradition, two Oscars, and perhaps a little old-school Ian Fleming sexism demand that Christophe Waltz receives second billing, but Seydoux has far more screen time and emotional investment. She gives the film’s best performance. Waltz, in a surprisingly brief role, is effective but hardly impactful on the scale of at least ten of the franchise’s top villains, if not more. Andrew Scott and Ralph Fiennes play off each other very well as the bureaucrats (M and “C”) bickering back in Old Blighty, and Ben Whishaw solidifies his claim on Q. As an old-school, wordless heavy, Dave Bautista (Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy) is suitably heavy (and, astoundingly, never less than fully suited).
As for Craig, he’s great as usual, but you can sense his ennui. He’s over it and it just manages to show. His performance is subdued, almost laid back. He knows he’s the best Bond and he coasts a little. But every time he shares a scene with Seydoux, his game lifts noticeably. She brings out the best in him, something Madeleine also does to Bond. The film’s conclusion harks directly back to one of those “romance ones” I mentioned earlier, but this time, Bond gets the girl. I’m happy for him.