Desmond O’Neill: Shaken and stirred

Desmond O'NeillA key challenge of teaching gerontology in health sciences is to liberate ageing from the confines of later life and to view it as a continuous process across the life course. No neater (or more unlikely) support can be found than the themes of ageing, utility, and retirement permeating Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie. Its celebration of 50 years of the franchise also unwittingly reflects the age at which the World Health Organisation considers one to be an older adult.

Shot with wit and style, there is no lack of excitement, extended chases, or exotic locations. Yet not only do we have constant reminders of the past through droll references to earlier Bond movies, but we encounter an older and wiser James Bond. Played by Daniel Craig, he portrays a vulnerability far removed from the glib sangfroid of his celluloid predecessors and has retired to an exotic bolthole after he is assumed to have died during a botched operation. His moral descent (and subsequent ascent) is reflected by transitions between dry Martinis and proletarian lager.

Roused to return to active service by a threat to world security, a combination of his age, recent dissipation in life-style, and a new generation in MI6 threaten his reinsertion. Equally M, in a sterling performance by Judi Dench, is viewed as “past it,” especially when the forces of evil gain the upper hand early on in the movie.

This early exposure to the protean nature of ageism, which can affect us well short of traditional retirement age, is amplified in a lovely scene in the National Gallery where Bond meets an alarmingly youthful Q in front of The Fighting Temeraire, their dry repartee counterpointing Turner’s glowing images of obsolescence and retirement.

There follows a wonderful parallel of how our standard assessments of cognition and ability may underestimate function, experience, and vitality as we age. James Bond fails all of his tests—marksmanship, psychology, and other arcana—to which he is subjected on his return to the Secret Service. Yet M sees past this, and together they prove that age and guile beat youth and innocence, teaming up with an ancient family retainer for the final explosive encounter.

This subtle, entertaining and sometimes dark movie succeeds in giving an intergenerational flavour and complexity to a genre not usually known for reflectiveness. With Skyfall, we are shaken from uncritical negativity about the effects of ageing, and hopefully stirred to reject ageism when we next encounter it at any stage of the life course.

Desmond O’Neill is a consultant physician in geriatric and stroke medicine in Dublin, and is a member of the external advisory panel of the age friendly university initiative.