“Orphans always make the best agents.”
says Judi Dench’s M to Daniel Craig’s Bond as they look out across the bleak Scottish Highlands to Bond’s family home, Skyfall. ‘Skyfall’ was a phenomenal success: the most successful film ever at the UK box office and (at the time of writing) the 16th most successful film ever made having grossed over $1.1 billion. To understand how extraordinary this is you just need to look at the Bond film that immediately preceded it, ‘Quantum of Solace’, which grossed less than half that sum, and the one that immediately succeeded it, ‘Spectre’, which grossed around $300 million less. And, of course, it is in a completely different league to the James Bond films that didn’t star Daniel Craig.
Some say it was due to the residual good will felt after the 2012 London Olympics, where Craig’s Bond escorted the Queen to Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony and they parachuted into the stadium together. Others that it was because it was Bond's 50th anniversary and some that it was simply the best Bond film with the best Bond.
I think it was because of the story that ‘Skyfall’ tells. The story of ‘Skyfall’ is summed up like this on its IMDB page: ‘Bond's loyalty to M is tested when her past comes back to haunt her. Whilst MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.’
This is not the story that I saw. The story that I saw has been told many thousands of times in many hundreds of iterations. There are two famous versions of this story in the Western cannon: one in the Old Testament and the other is the foundation myth of Rome.
The one in the Old Testament tells the story of two brothers, Cain and Abel. As they grew up, Abel became a shepherd and Cain tended the land. When the time came Cain presented some of his crops to the Lord and Abel presented the first born of his flock. The Lord preferred Abel’s gift. This drove Cain into a jealous rage and he killed Abel.
The creation myth of Rome also tells the story of two brothers, Romulus and Remus. Abandoned to die on the Tiber River when they were young, they were saved by a she-wolf who suckles them and a woodpecker who fed them. They grow up to be natural leaders but instead of returning to inherit their ancestral home they decided to found a new city. But they argued about the location and in a rage Romulus killed Remus.
Which brings us back to ‘Skyfall’ and “Orphans always make the best agents.” The story that I saw was the story of two brothers vying for their mother’s love. The brother who expresses his love through a feigned indifference, who disappears for months on end, who breaks all the rules, the mother loves him and would do anything to protect him. But the older brother who does exactly what his mother says, who follows her orders slavishly, who would die for her is vilified and she doesn’t love him anywhere near as much as she loves his brother. And this drives him mad. He sets out to possess his mother completely and to do this he must kill his brother.
This is the story that I saw, an archetypal narrative - much like Joseph Campbell’s monomyth - that resonates across cultures because there is a version of it in every culture: the story of sibling rivalry.