V for Vendetta
Director : James McTeigue
Screenplay : The Wachowski Brothers (based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Natalie Portman(Evey), Hugo Weaving(V / William Rookwood), Stephen Rea (Finch), Stephen Fry (Deitrich), John Hurt (Adam Sutler), Tim Pigott-Smith (Creedy), Rupert Graves (Dominic), Roger Allam (Lewis Prothero), Ben Miles (Dascomb), Sinéad Cusack (Delia Surridge), Natasha Wightman (Valerie), John Standing (Lilliman), Eddie Marsan (Etheridge), Clive Ashborn (Guy Fawkes)
As George Clooney admitted in his otherwise genially back-slapping acceptance speech for his Best Supporting Actor Oscar a few weeks ago, Hollywood tends to run a bit behind in tackling topical social issues, sometimes by many years. As both an art and a business, American movies have historically maintained a conservative outlook, often reacting slowly and minimally to significant social upheaval.
In that light, V for Vendetta is a particularly intriguing movie in that it celebrates the potential of terroristic violence to enact positive social change at a time when politicians of the Western world have devoted themselves wholeheartedly to demonizing that very sentiment. Based on a 1980s graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd that was produced as a direct response to the rise of Thatcherism in Great Britain, V for Vendetta takes the seemingly radical stance that violence is a tool that can and should be used by oppressed people to free themselves. Of course, such a stance does not appears radical when you are in sympathy with the oppressed, which is why Americans can celebrate the American Revolution and condemn Islamic jihadists.
It is for that exact reason that V for Vendetta is not nearly as radical as it makes itself out to be. In fact, in virtually every respect, it bends over backwards to make its romanticized terrorism palatable to viewers who would otherwise loathe it. The story takes place in a near-distant future in which the United States have dissolved into chaos and civil war and Great Britain has been taken over by a Nazi-esque totalitarian regime whose guiding principle is “Strength through unity, unity through faith.” Works of art and music have been banned as “objectionable,” curfews are strictly enforced, and mass sentiment is carefully directed by a centrally controlled television network that bends the truth to the needs of those in power. The country is run almost single-handedly by the ravenous Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt), who in every way reflects Adolf Hitler, from the manner in which he seized power, to his black-and-red party symbol, to the way he parts his hair.
The film’s hero is a mysterious vigilante who calls himself V (Hugo Weaving). V associates himself directly with the 17th-century conspirator Guy Fawkes, who attempted to blow up Parliament, by wearing a mask in Fawkes’ likeness (a potential visual liability that actually works quite well). Not unlike Batman, with his flowing cape, masked visage, secret hideaway, and lethal skills, V is an antihero whose “anti” status is perpetually softened. Ostensibly a character whose moral compass is meant to be in question, at no point does the film ever truly question his Hollywood hero status, even when the heroine, a young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman), calls him a “monster” to his face. V’s refined intellect, impeccable manners, and enviable fighting skills make him a perfectly acceptable movie hero, which is cemented when Evey falls in love with him at the end. V may talk about the usefulness of blowing up buildings, a sentiment that is particularly painful in a post-9/11 world, but he talks of them only as symbols and, when he carries out his actions, the buildings are always empty. The worst thing V does is destroy structures, which aligns him perfectly with the guiding impetus of the action-movie mold.
V’s actions are also clearly vindicated by the government against which he is fighting, which is so clearly fascistic and evil that no one outside a neo-Nazi could argue that blowing up Parliament (which is V’s master plan) is a bad idea. As Chancellor Sutler, Hurt literally foams at the mouth on a huge screen that dominates his beady-eyed minions, with the exception of Chief Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea), who is torn between his party loyalty and his “feeling” that something isn’t quite right. The mass media are personified by Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam), a rabidly nationalistic news commentator who ends each of his vile harangues with the sign-off “England prevails!” Since the government’s validity rests largely on the idea of “faith,” organized religion is also shown to be thoroughly and fundamentally corrupt, personified primarily by a pedophilic priest. For good measure, the film throws in plenty of visual allusions to recognizable totalitarian regimes of the past, most notably Stalinist midnight raids in which undesirables are “black bagged” and subsequently disappear and plenty of vivid Holocaust imagery, from concentration camps to government testing of viruses on prisoners.
V for Vendetta was scripted by The Wachowski Brothers, whose Matrix trilogy helped rewrite the modern sci-fi spectacle. Alan Moore has disowned any association with the film, which suggests that their tampering with his vision and underlying meaning is fairly severe. The directing duties were handed over to first-timer James McTeigue, who worked as second unit director for the two Matrix sequels. For the most part, McTeigue guides the film effectively, albeit without much flair or distinction. His direction of the action scenes is good enough, and he doesn’t allow himself to get too bogged down in showy slow-motion effects, although there is one typically ridiculous overhead shot of Evey standing in the rain that screams of needless overkill (we get the rebirth symbolism, already!).
Nevertheless, for all its weaknesses, V for Vendetta is first and foremost a movie of ideas, which is all too rare in today’s cinematic marketplace. Unfortunately, it is not nearly as radical as it thinks it is, which is typical of Hollywood’s conflicted desires to both challenge and soothe. In a sense, V for Vendetta a radical poseur, burying any truly anti-establishment ideals beneath a veneer of familiar movie tropes and romanticized violence. Its tagline is “People shouldn’t be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their people,” but its ultimate message is that no one should be afraid of big-budget movies, no matter how daring they might seem.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 Warner Bros.