Category: Sam Mendes

Empire of Light (2022)

Empire of Light (2022)

Mendes passion project is strangely free of passion in a film that misses the targets it aims for

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Olivia Colman (Hilary Small), Micheal Ward (Stephen Murray), Tom Brooke (Neil), Toby Jones (Norman), Colin Firth (Donald Ellis), Tanya Moodie (Delia), Hannah Onslow (Janine), Crystal Clarke (Ruby), Monica Dolan (Rosemary Bates), Sara Stewart (Brenda Ellis)

In 1981, Hilary Small (Oliva Colman) is the duty manager of grand, old-fashioned, Margate sea-front cinema The Empire. A quiet, lonely spinster who’s never seen any of the cinema’s movies, she carefully performs her duties at work which include servicing the sexual needs of owner Mr Ellis (Colin Firth). However, her life changes when young Black man Stephen Murray (Micheal Ward) starts as an usher. The two strike up a friendship that becomes a relationship – but runs into conflict as Stephen struggles with growing racism and Hilary suffers a relapse into schizophrenia.

Empire of Light has been described as personal passion project by Sam Mendes. Bizarrely it feels like a film which all passion has been strained out of. It’s a functional and safe film, scripted with little inspiration and given life largely by the charisma of its two leads.

Empire of Light partially frames itself as a love-letter to cinema-going and film. Strangely it hardly engages with either of these. In fact, it could (with minor script changes) be set just as easily in a department store, petrol station or bingo hall. This is a film where no-one talks about cinema, watches a film or even seems interested. Toby Jones’ projectionist explains the mechanics of his trade in what feels like a carefully scripted explanation of the workings of a machine the writer knows nothing about. For all the beauty of Roger Deakins’ photography, there is no moment of magic that you might expect from a director who claims to be enamoured with the medium.

Hilary finally decides to watch a film for the first time: “pick any one you like” she tells Jones. He tees up Being There – a film I’m wondering if Mendes has seen. For starters, would I show a film about mental health featuring a racist cartoon in the middle to a woman struggling with her own mental health who has just watched a close friend being beaten up by the National Front? You’re left feeling Norman simply teed up whatever film was in the machine. But then, as he says, he doesn’t really watch the films anyway. Afterwards Hilary and Stephen chat about Peter Sellers – but never once mention he has only just died.

Empire of Light fails at most other things it attempts to do. Its heart is in the coming-of-age, second-chance-at-life romance at its centre. There is fine chemistry between Colman and Ward, and their bashful coming together works as a meeting of two spiritually similar people who feel life is passing them by. Their unspoken courtship early on – rescuing a wounded pigeon together in the abandoned upper-storey of the Empire or watching the New Years fireworks on the roof – has a pleasant innocence. But fundamentally, these characters feel ill-defined and go through personal crises that feel pat and under-developed.

Colman gives her all as Hilary – although this sort of dumpy, frumpy, tragic, timid woman is becoming a little too much of a calling card – but this is a thin character. We slowly realise Hilary is a woman struggling with mental health – making her sexual exploitation by Firth’s smug, sleazy, manager even more unpleasant. She carefully goes about her work, stares down at the ground and wouldn’t even dream of intruding on the cinema-goer by actually watching the film. Colman masters the little touches of glee she gets at the presence of Stephen, Hilary’s simultaneous enjoyment and bashfulness about what she assumes is a hopeless crush.

Where the film fails though is in finding any depth in Hilary’s struggles with schizophrenia. Colman’s character is inspired, in many ways, by Mendes’ own mother. The film aims for a sympathetic presentation of mental health, which it manages but without providing any insight. While many aspects of mental health were not discussed at the time, a film made today really should have more to say than Empire of Light musters.  Instead, Hilary’s condition feels like a dramatic shorthand. For a passion project that’s not good enough – the film even falls back on the age-old “stops taking her meds” plotline. For all the gusto and commitment Colman brings to Hilary’s mental collapse – a furious destruction of a sandcastle, or ranting, drunk, in an apartment where the walls are strewn with self-penned graffiti – it never feels insightful enough.

It’s sadly the same with Micheal Ward’s Stephen. For all Ward is hugely charming as this saintly young man – and for all he expertly suggests Stephen’s anger at the growing tide of racism in Britain – the issues he deals with feel like window-dressing. The most interesting moment is his confrontation with an angry, racist customer who is appeased by Hilary rather than challenged – much to Stephen’s justified fury. But name-checking Brixton and New Cross and saying “it’s getting worse” doesn’t really feel like getting to grips with the dilemmas he, and young men like him, were facing. Particularly when Stephen responds to a deadly beating with something approaching a shrug of the shoulders. You can’t argue with Mendes’ genuine feelings, but there is never enough depth.

Instead, these major social issues are benched by the film’s end, making them feel like discussion points to make Hilary feel better about her life and for Stephen to resolve to move on with his. It has less to say about these issues than an episode of Call the Midwife. Just as it has nothing to say about the magic of cinema going, turning it into a retro back-drop of posters and old sweeties. Far from making a case for cinema, it makes the building as irrelevant as some worry it is becoming today.

American Beauty (1999)

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening excel in the dated Best Picture winner American Beauty

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Kevin Spacey (Lester Burnham), Annette Bening (Carolyn Burnham), Chris Cooper (Colonel Frank Fitts), Thora Birch (Jane Burnham), Wes Bentley (Ricky Fitts), Mena Suvari (Angela Hayes), Peter Gallagher (Buddy Kane), Allison Janney (Barbara Fitts)

Time has not been kind to American Beauty – and I’m not just talking about Kevin Spacey. In 1999, what felt like a timely exploration of male-angst has, over time, looked less prescient and more like the last embers of a generation that thought they were The Graduate’s Benjamin but actually became his parents. Many of the sympathies of American Beauty now feel dated and slightly misguided, or obscure some genuine reflections on its characters. Its satire of consumerism feels trapped in the 90s. But it’s also very skilfully made, often funny, beautifully shot and you can see why it seemed like the next landmark masterpiece of American cinema, an Apartment for the modern age.

In suburbia, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a middle-aged, middle-ranking magazine executive, tired of his life, unhappy in his marriage to Carolyn (Annette Bening), a fiercely ambitious real estate agent, and drifting away from daughter Jane (Thora Birch). He is snapped out of his ennui by his infatuation with Jane’s friend and fellow-cheerleader Angela (Mena Suvari). Next thing we know, Lester realises he hates his life, quits his job (blackmailing his boss on the way), buys the car of his dreams and takes a job flipping burgers – to the bewildered frustration of Carolyn, who starts an affair. Meanwhile Jane becomes intrigued by Ricky (Wes Bentley), the film-obsessed and drug-dealing son of their next-door neighbour, homophobic army colonel Frank (Chris Cooper). Oh, and it’s all narrated from beyond the grave by Lester – so we know it won’t end well.

“There is nothing worse than being ordinary” says Ricky at one point. It’s an attitude that underlies the film. American Beauty has that very showbiz attitude that the lives most ordinary people lead must be rather shallow and empty. That there can be no meaning in the life of suburbia, family and 9-to-5 that so many of us lead. A sharper film would have added depth and contrast to this – but American Beauty is a film that, for all its quality, is also very pleased with itself.

American Beauty’s debt to Billy Wilder is central to its DNA. It plays often as a mix of The Apartment and Sunset Boulevard, with Spacey skilfully channelling a twist of Lemmon as Burnham. Saying that, I can’t believe Wilder would have been as easy on Lester as Ball and Mendes are. Surely Wilder would have seen through the self-serving selfishness and sad delusion that underlie Burnham’s mid-life crisis, fuelled by his fears of emasculation.

It’s that fear running through American Beauty and – for all it looks at first like a satire on suburbia – what came out to me on rewatching is that parallel narrative of two men suffering familiar masculine crises. Burnham, the office drone, ignored at work, playing second fiddle to his wife at home. He doesn’t wear the pants anywhere – his wife chooses the music they listen to, the events they go to, she doesn’t even let him drive the car. Teenage dreams of rebelling disappeared. He’s forgotten what it feels like to be a man. Then there’s Colonel Fitts, the man’s man struggling with self-loathing due to his deeply repressed homosexuality. These are fairly conventional stories.

Lester’s story takes centre stage (even the name Lester Burnham is wimpy). Outstandingly played by Kevin Spacey, who was never better or more humane, Burnham is endearing, rather sweet, clutzy but still has that sharp-tongued Spacey sense of wit. The opening sequences perfectly capture Burnham’s Jack-Lemmonish awkwardness, repression, inadequacy and depression. But  if anything, Spacey is almost too sympathetic in the role, masking the selfishness and self-serving nature of Burnham’s mid-life crisis (which is what it is), urging us to celebrate his rules-bucking independence.  The film never gets to grips with the spark for all this being a sexual obsession with a teenage girl.

American Beauty never questions the sleazy corruption of Lester’s fantasy – and is perfectly happy with using his crush as a positive motivation for getting his mojo back, as well as frequently presenting Angela as a Lolita-esque fantasy. He holds back from sex with her when she confesses she is a virgin – but the film offers no “what am I doing” epiphany from Lester (or a realisation that he is about to sleep with someone literally young enough to be his daughter), instead turning this exploitative moment into an expression of some decency in Lester. Sure, it’s great that Lester realises his responsibilities eventually – but even in 1999, we all knew it was wrong for middle aged men to sleep with impressionable school-children.

The fact is that Election, released the year before, had more to say about exactly the sort of underperforming, thinks-of-himself-as-a-failure resentment of men of Burnham’s ilk – the difference being that Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister in that film is exposed as a bitter self-serving fantasist, which is what Burnham really is. Burnham’s dying moments may be full of reflections on his wife and daughter – but he ignores them or treats them with scorn throughout the film.

And there isn’t, I feel, a satirical note to this. Instead, the film roots for Burnham strongly, asking us to admire his late life rebellion. Maybe it’s the conservative in me – maybe it’s because I don’t much like The Graduate either – but I don’t feel it. Spacey is great – but Burnham is selfish and embodies a concern in certain men that career-minded women and suburbia were turning them from hunter-gatherers into hen-pecked losers. American Beauty is a direct development of the masculinity crisis films Michael Douglas specialised in throughout the 80s and 90s, of men lost in a world that isn’t 100% about them and what they want any more.

The film’s parallel plot of Fitt’s homosexuality crisis is even more familiar than Burnham’s and hits many expected bases – there are no real surprises here for anyone who has ever seen a film before. It largely works as it is so outstandingly sold by Chris Cooper, who gives a brilliantly rich and raw performance as Fitts.

But its faint whiff of predictability fits alongside a script that is often very rich on dialogue, but has a vein of pretention to it that makes the film feel it’s striving to be important. Ball’s dialogue too often undermines its own points with the stench of pretension. The teenagers in the film fall into broadly predictable cliché. The arty, dreamy ones are profound; the pretty one is shallow and flighty (although, to be fair, is shown to also be vulnerable and scared). Bentley’s character’s faux-artiste musings on the movements of a plastic bag are exactly the sort of pretentious ramblings Ball would later puncture so effectively with the college art classes in Six Feet Under. These scenes have dated terribly and ache with self-importance (and are ripe for parody).

But there is quality here, don’t get me wrong. Spacey is superb, Cooper brilliant. Annette Bening is pitch-perfect as a career-focused woman who lives her life through self-help mantras but is only just holding it together. It’s a shame that, just like Mrs Robinson, the film is so full of sympathy for its male protagonist that it has no time to empathise fully with its female lead.  Mendes directs with a stunning confidence for a first-timer, drawing brilliant performances from the actors as well as bringing a startling originality to the filming (in partnership with Conrad Hall as photographer).

But American Beauty never turns its “look closer” message on itself. It uncritically examines a particular masculine crisis and often makes points that are witty but simple. The final act becomes weighted down with a tiresome “whodunnit?” mystery. The acting, direction and much of the writing is frequently brilliant. But the film itself, as a whole, has not aged as well as we thought it might.

1917 (2019)

George MacKay is lost in the horrors of war in Sam Mendes’ one-shot 1917

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: George MacKay (Lance Corporal Will Schofield), Dean-Charles Chapman (Lance Corporal Tom Blake), Benedict Cumberbatch (Colonel Mackenzie), Colin Firth (General Erinmore), Richard Madden (Captain Blake), Andrew Scott (Lt. Leslie), Mark Strong (Captain Smith), Claire Duburcq (Lauri), Daniel Mays (Sgt Saunders), Adrian Scarborough (Major Hepburn), Jamie Parker (Lt Richards), Michael Jibson (Lt Hutton), Richard McCabe (Colonel Collins)

No film can even begin to capture the unspeakable horror of war, and those of us who have never been in the middle of it can only imagine what it must have been like for those who have. Based on the experiences of his grandfather Alfred, Sam Mendes’ World War I story tries to immerse the viewers in the experience by staging a film designed to play out in real time, in two epic takes (actually a series of very long takes seamlessly spliced together). It’s a technical accomplishment, but also a film partly dominated by the precision of its construction rather than the emotion of its telling.

One day in April 1917, two young Lance-Corporals, brave and selfless Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and more war-weary Will Schofield (George MacKay) are tasked with a desperate mission by General Erinmore (Colin Firth). The next morning, a British regiment will walk into a trap set by German forces. Blake and Schofield must take a message through no-man’s land, cancelling the regiment’s planned attack, or 1,600 men will die – including Blake’s brother who is serving with the regiment. 

Mendes’ film is a triumph whenever it is in motion. The time-limited race to travel across miles of hostile land – through no-man’s land, booby-trapped abandoned trenches, hazardous open fields and ruined towns that have become battlegrounds – works a treat whenever our heroes are constantly moving forward. Drawing a strange inspiration from Lord of the Rings, with its quest structure and Schofield as a Samwise to Blake’s Bilbo, the film is compellingly completed with the over-the-shoulder, walking-alongside intimacy of the camera work that follows every step of this journey, that never pulls ahead or shows us something that the soldiers can’t see and keeps us nearly constantly (bar one stunning shot of a ruined town lit only by firelight and early dawn) at the level of the soldiers.

It’s an epic experience film, and Mendes’ camerawork and ingenuity in the shooting create the impression of a one-take film – some shots seem to travel at least a mile, through winding trenches, with our heroes. The effect is justified by the desire of the film to throw us into the experience of the soldiers and to create the impression that we are sharing a journey with them – and hammers home the time pressure these men are operating under as we experience everything first hand, including the only undisguised cut (and time jump) in the film. The horrors of the war are superbly shown – dead bodies, many bloated or deformed by exposure, litter the frame but tellingly bring little comment from the soldiers, demonstrating how accustomed they have become to such sights. Each frame seems covered with muddy surfaces, and sharp freezing chills. Technically it’s a marvel, and you have to admire Mendes’ ambition in even attempting such a thing. 

Perhaps, though, that is one problem with the film. You are so impressed with the showy intelligence and grace of the camera movements, the ingenuity needed to keep the camera rolling through takes lasting ten minutes or more and travelling miles at a time, that move in and around confined rooms and trenches, that you at time spend as much (if not more) time marvelling at the brilliance of the film making as you do feeling the emotion of the story. While the long takes add immeasurably to the many moments of peril, dread and terror that the characters go through (helped also by Thomas Newman’s eerily unsettling score), they also become as much about admiring the technical brilliance as they are investing in the story.

Of course, the story has been boiled down to something very simple and elemental – and it avoids many clichés you half-expect from the start. But the film itself gets slightly less interesting when the relentless march forward stops, when the characters slow down or take moments of reflection. A section in the middle of the film where the action pauses around a young French woman hiding in a bombed out French town doesn’t quite work, and has a slight air of spinning plates – you could have allowed a longer break in the single take effect to take us from one event to another. In fact you wonder if a film that had more of a time jump or had been constructed around 3-4 clear long takes with time jumps might have worked better.

This is not to criticise the two actors who embody the leads. George MacKay is superb as a soldier who experiences immense suffering and torment on a journey he is less than willing to undertake from the first, and finds himself opening up his emotions and feelings more and more as the film progresses. Dean-Charles Chapman is a good match as a slightly more naïve youngster, desperate to do the right thing and selfless in his courage. These two move on a journey that essentially sees them handed over from one big-star cameo to another (something that is sometimes a little distracting, if necessary to allow these brief appearances to have character impact) with Firth, Strong, Cumberbatch, Madden et al all delivering terrific work in a few short minutes on screen.

Mendes’ direction technically is faultless, and the style chosen really adds huge and unrepeatable visual benefits, all superbly caught by Roger Deakins’ sublimely beautiful photography. At one moment a flare is fired – and we see it arch out of shot and then repair behind us in real time as the characters move forward. At another, an aerial dogfight goes from distant to alarmingly close. The countryside recedes hauntingly as a ride is hitched from a motorised regiment. 

The single-take effect does make it far easier to relate in these moments to the soldiers. It works less well at smaller moments – and arguably could have been replaced by a more conventional style here to give even more impact to the rest – but its execution is perfect. Maybe too perfect, as it doesn’t always make room for the heart. Hollywood’s directors seem more and more drawn to the long take for the immersive, big-screen quality they carry – four of the last five Oscars have gone to directors whose films are almost entirely made up with them. But they create – as is sometimes the case with 1917 – something that is a product for the largest screen, immersive experiences that perhaps lack rewarding depth on later revisits.

Spectre (2015)


Bond heads into danger in thematic mess Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Daniel Craig (James Bond), Christoph Waltz (Franz Oberhauser/Ernst Stavro Blofeld), Léa Seydoux (Dr Madeleine Swann), Ralph Fiennes (M), Ben Whishaw (Q), Naomie Harris (Eve Moneypenny), Dave Bautista (Mr Hinx), Andrew Scott (Max Denbigh), Monica Bellucci (Lucia Sciarra), Rory Kinnear (Bill Tanner), Jesper Christensen (Mr White)

SPOILERS: Okay, surely most people have seen this by now – but just in case I’m going to spoil the big twist of Spectre. It is, by the way, a really, really, really stupid, annoying terrible twist. So you won’t mind. But just in case you do… Spoilers.

In 2002, Austin Powers: Goldmember had, amongst its ridiculous plotlines, a reveal that Austin Powers and Dr Evil were, in fact, long lost brothers. It was the crowning height of silliness in the franchise, the ultimate punchline to Mike Myers’ James Bond spoof. Well the wheel comes full circle: in 2015, Spectre’s shock plot reveal was – James Bond and Ernst Stavro Blofeld – wait for it – they were only – guess what! – raised by the same man, so basically sorta brothers! Who would have thunk it? The world’s greatest spy and world’s greatest villain both grew up together. Yup, the Bond producers actually thought this was a good idea. Yup they were completely wrong.

Spectre opens in Mexico with Bond (Daniel Craig) preventing an attack on a football stadium – although this attack basically involves trashing an entire city block. Benched by M (Ralph Fiennes), he investigates the shadowy organisation known as Spectre, which he discovers is run by Franz Oberhauser (Christop Waltz), a man Bond seems to know a great deal about. Meanwhile M engages in Whitehall battles with the intelligence director Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) and his sinister “Nine Eyes” programme, designed to control all surveillance in the developed world.

Spectre is a film that really falls apart in its final third, as ridiculous revelation piles on top of ludicrous contrivance. After Skyfall, we all wanted Sam Mendes to come back to do another Bond film, but this makes every single mistake that film avoided: it’s self-conscious, it’s silly in the wrong way, it takes itself way too seriously, despite its best efforts it doesn’t really do anything new, and it attempts to build a “Bond universe” around a franchise that works because it keeps reinventing itself in stand-alone films. It’s the Bond producers attempt to do a Marvel film – and it ain’t pretty. Did we need to create some sort of tenuous link between the Craig-era Bond movies? Did we need Blofeld and Bond to have a “very personal” connection? No we massively did not.

Mendes shoots the action with a mock grandeur that seems to be serving other things than the plot. Critics fawned over the long shot that follows Bond through the Day of the Dead street festival, through a hotel, out of a window, across a series of roofs and into the first action scene. But for me, it’s a self-conscious, look-at-me piece of trickery. It’s an air of pretention that runs through the whole film: it’s a film that wants you to think it’s making Big Points around Bond’s psychology and background, but keeps running aground because it goes about them in such a ham fisted way, particularly when compared to Skyfall’s subtlety and willingness to look at Bond’s vulnerability.

Most sequences in the film feels strangely flat and lifeless. There is a surprisingly sterile car chase through the streets of Rome between Bond and Hinx. The opening montage in Mexico just never really grips – maybe because it’s not clear what’s going on, maybe because it feels so self-consciously grandiose. The film’s tone is over the place – there are lashings of Moore. Bond falls through a collapsing building only to land on a sofa. During the car chase, Bond hits a button only to have some Frank Sinatra start playing on the radio. Craig does at least go through the comedy with a breezy lightness, though it sits oddly in a film that features a villain shooting himself in the head, and a guy having his eyes gouged out. 

The whole investigation into Spectre just isn’t interesting. Because the film has been written with such a self-conscious eye on fandom, it never gives us a reason within the film to care about it at all. Spectre don’t seem to be doing anything, other than being a shady organisation making money. We don’t get told why Bond is invested in it or Oberhauser until late in the day. The film pins everything on a “beyond the grave” video from Judi Dench’s M to give us a reason for chasing this plot. But nothing feels at stake. Bond isn’t rushing to prevent anything, and we don’t get told about his personal stake in it until almost the end – and even when we do, Bond doesn’t really seem to give a toss about the reveal.

Ah yes. The reveal. A few years ago, Star Trek Into Darkness had a terrible, nonsensical reveal around Benedict Cumberbatch’s character – turns out he was Khan. This was met with derision because (a) it had no impact on the wider viewers who didn’t know who Khan was, (b) it felt shoe-horned in as fan service, and (c) it had no impact on the characters in the film who’d never met Khan before. So who cared? He might as well have said “My real name is Fred”. This was the case with the Blofeld reveal here. The name means little to non-Bond fans. And it means naff-all to Bond. We’ve never heard it mentioned in the film before. It comes out of nowhere. It means nothing – it’s dropped into the film to get a cheer at comic con – so nakedly so, that it just annoyed people.

It doesn’t help that the whole “secret brothers” thing is a really, really dumb idea. I mean so mega-dumb it was, as mentioned, the final ridiculous flourish of Austin Powers. How did they look at this and think “yes”? Again it feels like retreading Skyfall ground – this already had given us interesting insights into Bond by having him return to his childhood home. But what did we learn about Bond here? Sweet FA. Whatever iconic status Blofeld had is also immediately undermined by making him a pathetic envious child. Christoph Waltz’s bored performance doesn’t help either.

And as the film doesn’t spend any time establishing Blofeld or Spectre doing terrible things, it has to make a serious of tenuous connections to Craig’s other films to ludicrously suggest that everything that happened in those films was Blofeld’s evil plan. This is so clearly bollocks, retroactive adaptation that it just makes you snort. Skyfall’s villain was very clearly established as a personally motivated lone-wolf – it makes no sense that he was sent by Blofeld. The first two Craig films established a secretive organisation, but it was framed very much as corporate ruthless villainy – the idea that it was an organisation established to destroy Bond is nonsense.

The reveal that Blofeld wants to destroy Bond personally makes most of the film itself make no sense. If Blofeld wants Bond to come to his base to exact revenge for childhood wrongs, why does his muscle-man Hinx spend the film so aggressively trying to kill him (especially in the film’s stand out action sequence, a no-holds-barred scrap on a train)? It makes no-bloody-sense-at-all. It’s almost like they were making it up as they go. Even Quantum of Solace held together better plotwise than this (ironically QoSgoes almost completely unmentioned in Blofeld’s evil schemes – probably because it’s a bad film). The final confrontation between Bond and Blofeld strains credulity and patience – reaching for a personal rivalry that hasn’t been established by anything other than fans’ vague memories of watching You Only Live Twice on a Sunday afternoon years ago.

I’ve not mentioned the Bond girls either. The film tries to make a “strong female character” in Léa Seydoux’s Madeline Swann, but she is a plot device rather than a character, with no consistent personality, who is solely there to be whatever the plot, and Bond, need the Token Pretty Woman to be at that moment. When it needs her to be a gun-toting, self-reliant, go-getter who sasses Bond, she is. When the plot needs her to be a damsel in distress (which it does twice) she forgets all that firearms stuff and waits for a man to save her. When the plot needs her to express total devotion for Bond she does. When it needs her shortly afterwards to leave him, guess what, she does that as well. She is a character who makes no consistent sense at all. It doesn’t help that she looks way too young for Craig. The wonderful Monica Belluci is given a thankless role of informant and brief sex partner for Bond – she of course was far too close to Craig’s age to be the main Bond girl. Just as he did with the shower sex scene in Skyfall, Craig manages to make this seduction seem inappropriate and pervy – it’s not his strength.

Lea Seydoux. She is, by the way, 17 years younger than Daniel Craig. Just saying.

 The stupidly unclear, dully predictable “Nine Eyes” plot doesn’t make things any better either. One of Skyfall’s neatest tricks was to cleverly mislead us about Ralph Fiennes’ Gareth Mallory, setting him up as an antagonist to slowly reveal him as an ally. This film attempts an inverted version of this trick with Andrew Scott’s Max Denbigh. Problem is, Scott is at his most softly-spoken Moriarty sinister – you are in no doubt he’s a wrong ‘un from the first frame. What would have worked is making Denbigh Bond’s ally early. This would make further sense for the overall plot (if Denbigh is working with Blofeld, why does he want to block Bond getting to him…) and also make the reveal of his villainy at least a surprise for some people in the audience. As it is the whole reveal is no shock what-so-ever. The whole plot starts to feel like plates being spun in the air, a way to give Fiennes, Kinnear and Harris something to do on the margins of the film.

I mean – he just LOOKS like a villain doesn’t he?

Okay Spectre is well filmed. It’s got some good scenes. Ben Whishaw continues to be excellent as Q – and gets loads to do here which is great. Craig actually does some of the comedy with charm and skill – even if he hardly seems as engaged with the material here as he did before, as if he was already becoming tired of the whole enterprise. But it’s too long (over 2 and a half hours!), and straight from its pretentious “The Dead Are Alive Again” opening, it’s straining for a thematic depth and richness that it constantly misses. It makes nothing of its family feud plotline and we learn very little about Bond as a character at all. It mistakes stupid fan-service and pointless reveals for plot, and it builds itself towards a reveal that it expects to get a cheer from the audience, but has no real connection to the plot of the film we are watching, and is in no way earned by the events of the film. 

Spectre is, at best, in the middle rank of Bond films – too self-important, incoherent and (whisper it) a little dull in places to really work. It’s not a complete failure – but it is a major disappointment. There is enough here to entertain most of the time, but not enough to really engage the mind or the guts. For Sam Mendes, lightening didn’t strike twice.