Judi Dench takes centre stage, and 007 faces a terrifying blond-off with Javier Bardem, in a supremely enjoyable 50th-anniversary outing, says Peter Bradshaw: This is the seventh time Judi Dench has played the enigmatic spy-chief M. But it is only in this storming new Bond movie that her M has really been all that she could be. Under the stylish direction of Sam Mendes, Dench's M is quite simply the Bond girl to end all Bond girls. Watching this, I thought: of course. How could I have missed it? The real tension isn't with Moneypenny, but with the boss herself. Now M is an imperious, subtly oedipal intelligence-matriarch with the double-O boys under her thumb. She's treating them mean. She's keeping them keen. And she is rewarded with passionate loyalty, varying with smouldering resentment. It's a combination with its own unspoken eroticism, and it has also created the conditions for one of the most memorable Bond villains in recent times. M demands more and more from her agents, with less and less concern fr their safety. At one stage, 007 actually appears in M's apartment, late at night, after a difficult stretch in the field. Following a curt exchange, weary and somewhat hurt, Bond says he will find a hotel. "Well, you're not staying here," is M's superbly timed and exquisitely hurtful reply.
The 50th anniversary of the big-screen Bond was the right time to pull off something big. Skyfall is a hugely enjoyable action spectacular, but more grounded and cogent than the previous and disappointing outing, Quantum of Solace. It finds the right position on the spectrum between extravagance and realism: what I think of as the imaginary line running from Bond's invisible car in Die Another Day and Peter Guillam's Citroën DS in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Skyfall: a Bond title licensed to thrill: Skyfall, on one level, is basically a massive reassurance job. More than anything, it wants us to know that it is a classic Bond film. Q has returned. The baddie's got a properly terrible haircut. There's an old Aston Martin. True, Bond might have suddenly developed a taste for watery lagers now, but you can bet your bottom dollar that he still can't get enough of whatever Sony has to offer. Cast your doubts aside – this is the James Bond you know and love.
Really, though, it didn't have to go to so much effort. The most reassuring thing about Skyfall is right there already: its title. Skyfall unquestionably has the best name of any Bond film in the post-Fleming era. It's a confident two-syllable job. You can stroll up to the ticket counter at your local multiplex and ask to see it. Compare that to Quantum of Solace, where you had to furtively sneak up and mumble "James Bond please" or point at the screens or do a mime or anything that prevented you from having to physically say that mess of a title out loud, and Skyfall is already leagues ahead.
Is this anxiety true? I guess so. Though talking to Dench you do have the occasional nagging reminder of what she is so profoundly good at having you forget: that if she puts her mind to it, she can probably make you believe in anything. In the previous few days I have watched her and re-watched her as Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth I, as Iris Murdoch losing her mind, as J Edgar Hoover's mother, as a widow discovering India in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and have been immediately in thrall each time. Now here she is, oddly, in front of me, profoundly familiar, conspiratorial, engaged, gossipy, a good listener, seamlessly inhabiting the role of eager interviewee even at the age of 77, and delivering polished versions of stories that she has honed for just such an audience. The one about how her mother and father came to see her in Romeo and Juliet early in her career, and her dad was so engrossed in her performance that at the line "Where are my mother and father?" he responded: "Here we are, darling, in row H." The ones about being giggly and starstruck on Oscar night.
Javier Bardem: Sinister? Me? Javier Bardem has a face that was made for Bond villainy: buggy eyes, crooked nose, full lips… And that's before you get to his hair. As the killer Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, he established a useful link between psychopathy and the side parting. Now, as Raoul Silva, 007's nemesis in the new movie, Skyfall, the actor looks as if an albino polecat is draped across his head.
Bardem is back to normal brown hair today, a large presence in a London hotel room, with a slight look of Depardieu about him; jolie laide, if that term was ever used for a man. 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.
Which he is. The 43-year-old and Cruz live in Madrid where, when he isn't acting, Bardem runs a bar with his sister. He calls flying to LA "going to the office" and tries to stay out of Hollywood as much as possible. The couple have a one-year-old child, and Bardem is resolute in not talking about it. He grew up in a family of actors, but not in a glamorous way – most of his family, including his mother, were poor, frequently out of work and struggled to make ends meet. As a result, Bardem is a pragmatist. "You want to do your job well so that people in the future say, 'OK, he's not bad, let's hire him.'"
Yet Mendes, who has been hailed since American Beauty in 1999 as a leading Hollywood film-maker, has taken a long time to come home. Now after five films, each fairly hardboiled takes on life across the Atlantic, he is trumpeting his return to British cinema by directing the latest instalment in the most quintessentially English franchise of them all: James Bond.
It is a twist that amuses his star and friend, Daniel Craig, who had a hand in making it happen. "Sam had this stratospheric start to his career and made these great films, but he had never made a movie at home," he told the Observer this weekend. "And he is such a cinephile, so it is extraordinary that the first British film he has made is James Bond, which is about as British as it can be."
Skyfall is James Bond back to his best, say critics: Critics have hailed the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, as one of the best in the series in years, a brave and stylish if occasionally sentimental entry which revives Daniel Craig's standing as one of the greatest 007s four years after the disappointing Quantum of Solace.
The movie, directed by Sam Mendes and with cinematography from Roger Deakins, has a 100% "fresh" rating on the review-aggregator site rottentomatoes.com. Critics praised Craig's performance – his third as 007, in a film that marks the series' 50th anniversary – and labelled the decision to cast Javier Bardem as the villain a masterstroke. The plot, which sees Bond crisscrossing the globe as MI6 and Judi Dench's M come under threat from a cyberterrorist plot, was deemed refreshingly modern, though some questioned whether Ian Fleming would have fully recognised the epicurean spy he created well over half a century ago.
"The most significant reset of the 23-film series that's unconnected to a change of the actor playing 007, this long-awaited third outing for Daniel Craig feels more seriously connected to real-world concerns than any previous entry, despite the usual outlandish action scenes, glittering settings and larger-than-life characters," writes the Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy. "Dramatically gripping while still brandishing a droll undercurrent of humour, this beautifully made film will certainly be embraced as one of the best Bonds by loyal fans worldwide and leaves you wanting the next one to turn up sooner than four years from now."
Skyfall, Adele's Bond theme, is a deliciously languid ballad: It has been the worst-kept secret in pop. But the sheer obviousness of Adele being the right candidate for the Bond theme – that big voice for international audiences to swoon to – sits at odds with the themes we've had in recent years. They have been jagged, awkward things: Jack White and Alicia Keys' Another Way To Die; Chris Cornell's You Know My Name. It's as if they've tried to match Daniel Craig's craggy toughness with earthier sounds. Sadly, those tunes were too forgettable to get any pistols firing.
So back to basics it is, and the easier promise of a ballad-blasting female. But a 90-second clip of Skyfall released online on Tuesday suggests a slightly softer Adele: not the Rolling In The Deep singer who could rival Shirley Bassey for lung power. "Hear my heart burst again," she begins with vulnerability, reminding us of the romantic, betrayed spy introduced to us, three films ago, by Daniel Craig. This delivery also reveals the best of Adele: the sound of an ordinary girl capable of extraordinary feeling.