Adams on Reel Women: M is for Mother in ‘Skyfall’

Thelma Adams
The Reel Breakdown

In "Skyfall," which has already grossed half a billion worldwide, Judi Dench's spymaster M gets more screen time and more to do, and she undergoes more changes than in any previous Bond film. Her character is integral to the plot -- always powerful, never eager to please. This aging government servant believes, when nudged toward retirement, that age and the experience that comes with it are actually to be valued by the motherland, not binned.

[Related: See showtimes for "Skyfall"]

In the opening sequence, while Bond (Daniel Craig) and Bond girl Eva (Naomie Harris) chase a terrorist cockroach (Ola Rapace) through narrow Arab markets and onto the top of a moving train, M, the head of MI6, stands behind her desk. In the old days, there was a huge gap between field and office. No gizmos, no cell phones, no constant location monitoring. Now that's changed, and M calls out from Eva's ear, literally behind the rifle, telling the field agent to take a shot that may very well pass through Bond to get the villain. M, through her decisions, has always had life-and-death power over her agents and their careers, but this new capability may just be beyond her skill set. Despite her senior position, is she a field agent or a desk jockey? By the end of the movie it is clear.

[Related: Adams on Reel Women: Cloud Atlas charts new territory between women and men with Halle Berry and Hugh Grant]

While standing behind her desk, M has a look that's more Queen Elizabeth than modern working woman trying desperately to hold on to youth or sexual power. (Think Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"). M's hair is silvery and short: what my grandmother used to call wash and go. But before Granny went out, she always combed it, sprayed it, and made sure the cut was recent. M is of the pearls generation. In every scene she wears matching earrings and necklace, expensive and tasteful. No statement necklace or flashy bangles for her. Her clothes are modest, mostly black, but posh and well tailored. She is the spymaster as Grandma; and yes, she has become a little myopic, and her hands shake when called on to do more than wield a pen.

And in "Skyfall," M stands for "Mother." There is a mother-son dynamic between M and Bond -- and the fallen MI6 agent Silva, gleefully played by Javier Bardem. The dynamic that Silva sets up between himself and Bond is of competitive brothers vying for their mother's attention. As a spymaster, a woman who uses manipulation strategically, M plays this to the hilt. She says something to the effect that "orphans make the best agents." That is because of their need for parenting and for pleasing the surrogate parent so that the critical adult won't disappear again. There are echoes here of Batman/Bruce Wayne and Spider-Man/Peter Parker (among many others). Not having parents and the need to fill that emptiness makes these men, agents and superheroes alike, both valiant and vulnerable.

[Related:The Amazonas Film Festival: Good Movies, Good Times in the Jungle]

In "Skyfall," the connection between boss and agent is at its most central in the series. M gets out from behind her desk and has an arc -- her character does not remain static. When she tries her hand in the field, where she has sent so many agent "sons" and "daughters" before her, she loses control and finds a vulnerability of which she was not previously aware. It would be giving too much of the plot away to say that this is a leap forward in the series as a whole. By the end, the status quo returns -- men are on top, and women retreat behind the desk in the secretarial pool (as my Yahoo! Movies colleague Matt McDaniel pointed out). In nearly every Bond film, the filmmakers try, and sometimes fail, to come to grips with the shifting images of modern women. The M is for "Mother" theme in "Skyfall" is one of the series' great successes. This M16 battle-ax is capable, flawed, and brittle but also able to confess the error of her ways.

Bond girls have come and gone. Dench's M is the ultimate Bond woman.

The cast of 'Skyfall' talks to Yahoo! Movies:

'Skyfall' Insider Access