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A Quick Guide to the Art and Craft of “Skyfall”’s Ben Whishaw

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Q in “Skyfall” is a nothing role made something of by Ben Whishaw – as one might expect. The English actor plays the MI6 quartermaster  as the ultimate über-geek; it’s the character’s first appearance in a Bond movie since John Cleese played him in 2002’s “Die Another Day.” Floppy-haired and bespectacled – his short-sightedness contributes to the story – this Q’s an Oxbridge type whose equanimity contains a hint of superciliousness, which makes him pleasingly annoying.

He meets Bond undercover on a bench at London’s National Gallery. The old England they defend is all around them. They’re sitting with their backs to Joseph Wright of Derby’s “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” (1768) and Thomas Gainsborough’s “Mr. and Mrs. William Hallett (‘The Morning Walk’)” (1785) and facing J.M.W. Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire” (1839).

Q knows who Bond is but Bond doesn’t know who Q is. When the young man beside him comments on Turner’s painting of “a grand old warship being ignominiously hauled away for scrap,” Daniel Craig’s out-of-condition and hypersensitive Bond ruminates on the possibility that he’s washed-up, so he excuses himself. Only then does Q introduce himself. It’s a deft bit of comedy, and it was a clever idea to make Bond the stooge.

Later on, Q dishes out a miniature radio and a handgun coded to Bond’s palm-prints. Whishaw does great justice to the lines, “Were you expecting an exploding pen? We really don’t go in for that anymore.” (Earlier Bonds toted lethal pens in “Never Say Never Again,” “Moonraker, “Octopussy,” and “Goldeneye.”) He also remarks that he designed the world’s most elaborate computer security protocol. But the Luddites on “Skyfall”’s writing team puncture his complacency when his shortsightedness contributes to the escape of Javier Bardem’s effete villain.

Though at 32 he has yet to escape boyishness, Whishaw is an exquisitely gifted actor. His casting as Q is fun but significant, since he espouses a certain kind of refined, repressed Englishness that’s at odds with Bond’s physical power and insouciance. Having broken though as the Old Vic’s “Hamlet” in 2004, a production I’d have given anything to see, Whishaw caught the mystery and allure of the young Keith Richards in “Stoned” (2005). He first came to attention here as the olfactorily-driven protagonist of “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” (2006).

His John Keats, whose love affair with Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) has barely started when he dies, is treasurable: He brought a hint of tousled, working-class earnestness to a role that would have hitherto been played by a RADA toff. The Romantic poetry in Whishaw also courses through his despairing bisexual composer, Frobisher, in “Cloud Atlas.” He has followed Hamlet as Ariel besides Helen Mirren’s Prospera in “The Tempest” and was a camp Richard II in a recent BBC adaptation.

In season two of “The Hour,” which began on BBC America yesterday, Whishaw is back as the 1950s BBC investigative journalist Freddie Lyon – brilliant but not as telegenic as the anchor (Dominic West) – and this time is tougher, calmer, and to the chagrin of their producer (Romola Garai) who has never paid him romantic attention, married! It’s a classy nostalgic soap, a superb vehicle for Whishaw’s passionate intellectualism and dreamy restraint.

Images from top: Ben Whishaw as Q, with Daniel Craig as 007, in “Skyfall.” © 2012 – Danjaq, LLC, United Artists Corporation, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved; Whishaw as Freddie Lyon in “The Hour.” Photo by Kudos Film & Television Ltd – © BBC

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