A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 
 

RANK: # 10

 
 

V FOR VENDETTA jjjj

2006, R, 130 mins.

Evey Hammond: Natalie Portman / V: Hugo Weaving / Finch: Stephen Rea / Deitrich: Stephen Fry / Sutler: John Hurt

Directed by James McTeigue /  Written by the Wachowski  Brothers / Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore

 
 

V for Vendetta Double-sided poster

In a cinematic age where action-packed blockbusters are crude, infantile, painfully low on ideals and rely utterly on mind-numbing chaos and kinetic visuals, V FOR VENDETTA is a most refreshing change of pace. 

It should be said that this film does not – in fact – starve us fans of visual effects-inspired mayhem.  Yet, what makes it stand far, far apart from other similar ventures is that it feels more inclined to be about ideas and themes and less about explosions, bullets flying, and blood flowing.  V FOR VENDETTA does have those latter elements, but it overwhelmingly wants us to think more about it concepts and react less to its aesthetic flourishes.  For these reasons, the film is a very efficient and potent work; it wants us to drink in its often-gorgeous sights, but it still would rather hook us in and make us seriously ponder what it’s trying to say.  The film has far loftier aspirations than most examples of its genre.     

Here’s a cunning work that manages to successfully be so many things – it’s a futuristic tale; a cautionary morality play; a socio-political parable with more than subtle nods to our current state of how governments use fear mongering to exploit peoples' concerns; a controversial narrative that makes a terrorist a freedom fighter; and so on.  As it works, it just may be the first great post-911 film that has the frankness and audacity to use its more otherwise fantastical elements to forge a story that has the clear potential to polarize and challenge its audience with equal severity.  The fact that V FOR VENDETTA marries all of these divergent elements together so effectively is to its ultimate credit.  It’s one of those rare popcorn entertainments that's as rousing as it is thoughtful and intriguing. 

Most lay viewers will see the film as a stunning, angry, and vehement assault on the current Bush administration.  Surely, ever since 911 there is a prevailing fear that our Southern neighbours have utilized political scapegoat tactics and have been fostering a level of ambivalence in its citizens to the point of sheer complacency.  Terrorism is an evil that must and should be fought, but at what ultimate price?  Does the end ever justify the means?  These are questions that V FOR VENDETTA tries to pose and dares to answer.  The fact that it appeared in graphic novel form well before the events of 911 demonstrates the source material's eerie foreshadowing of futuristic events.  It also amplifies the work's everlasting allure and appeal; if it manages to stir audiences through such expansive time periods, then you know you’re dealing with something powerful.

V FOR VENDETTA was the brainchild of Alan Moore, a British comic book mastermind who has been behind some of the more finer graphic novels ever committed to print.  His WATCHMEN, to this day, probably ranks as one of the best comic stories ever written.  Some of his other works have even been made into films.  Some of these adaptations were very good (like FROM HELL, a fictional take on the Jack the Ripper murder mystery), and some were decidedly very awful (like THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN).  Regardless of the material, Moore has been revered for his handling of the comic book form by infusing it with mature, literary sensibilities and poetic voice in a medium that has too often been labelled as juvenile and pedestrian. 

V FOR VENDETTA first appeared as a ten-issue comic book limited series between 1982-1985 and would later be collected and finalized in graphic novel form in 1989.  The overall sensibilities of the novel’s story must have reflected Moore’s general malaise and dissatisfaction with the Margaret Thatcher government of the 1980’s.  What is truly revealing is how well it resonates with more modern audiences.  To a UK viewer, the themes will ring with a harsh veracity.  To a North American viewer, the film seems like a clear stab at the current Presidency. 

As a person who has read the source material twice (once in its original release in the late 80's and once just recently), the film version itself (adapted in a screenplay by MATRIX-scribes Andy and Larry Wachowski) is a fairly liberal and concise take on it, at least in terms of tone and mood.  In 2020 the world seems to be on the brink of absolute turmoil.  The film take place mostly in the UK, but it still manages to detail what has happened to its Yankee brothers to the West (in this future, the US is no longer a united nation of independent, democratic states and has instead collapsed into a state of violent civil war cause mostly by plagues, civil unrest, and war).  America seems to be shown as a foil of sorts to the British Empire, which seems more calm and stable.  Well, its seems less chaotic because – at the heart of its civilization – is a vile, totalitarian government that rules over its people with a level of amoral, despotic glee that would have made Orwell proud.  In an ironic stroke of casting, the makers of the film cast John Hurt in the role of the Hitler-esque leader of the fascist regime, Adam Sutler.  You may remember him as the lonely and desperate hero fighting against Big Brother in the 1984 film adaptation of Orwell’s own take on a futuristic dictatorial empire, 1984.

Sutler's government controls everything – the TV airways, the news, the entertainment…everything.  If the current events don’t gel with Sutler, he’ll find a group of spin doctors who will tailor it for more suitable mass consumption.  Like all evil dictators, Sutler does not think he is evil.  He thinks he is right for his government's actions, but it seems that no one has sat him down to tell him that giving a country security is not the same as making a country free.  He rules over his people by communicating to his high command through giant view screens (another echo to Orwell).  He never once questions his administration's aims ("What we need right now is a clear message to the people of this country. This message must be read in every newspaper, seen on every television... I want want everyone to remember why they need us!")  Hurt plays his role with an over-the-top exuberance and boisterous gusto of a fanatic who’s not only lost his marbles, but will most likely never find them ever again.  He gives an appropriately maniacal and scenery-chewing performance of fire and brimstone.  How else does one play a despicable dictator?

Just when Sutler thought he had free reign to terrorize his city streets, he soon learns that he has one man who opposes him.  He is identified as “V” (played by Hugo Weaving, who was gloriously evil as Agent Smith in THE MATRIX TRILOGY).  V just may be on of the more ingeniously crafted of all the masked vigilantes.  He moves through the London streets much like Batman would through Gotham City and is a constant thorn in Sutler’s side. He also is decked out in a long, flowing black cape and bears a superficial resemblance to the Caped Crusader, but his plastic mask hides his entire face.  The plastic mask itself shows the visage of Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 tried to blow up the houses of Parliament. 

Guy Fawkes, at least as an element of his disguise, proves to be ever more metaphorical if one considers V’s larger modus operandi.  On Nov. 4, the eve of Guy Fawkes Day, British schoolchildren for centuries have started bonfires to burn Fawkes in effigy. On this eve in 2020, V saves a young TV reporter named Evey (played by the always fetching Natalie Portman) from rape at the hands of the police, forces her to join him, and makes it a warped date for the two of them by allowing her to witness his blowing up the Old Bailey courtrooms.  At least he does this deed of public destruction with a fever of a mad artist – he blows up the buildings complete with fireworks choreographed to the strains of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."  Gotta give him points for showmanship. 

Of course, the government sees this act as one of blatant terrorism and uses the news broadcasts in an effort to subvert V and find a more plausible explanation for the explosions.  Yet, what V does next is kind of resourceful.  He commandeers the national television network to claim responsibility of his acts, but he also uses this airtime to convince the world that the British government is corrupt and must be crushed, through any means necessary.  "Beneath this mask," he tells them, "is not just flesh, but ideas."  He vows that in precisely one year from his telecast that he will complete the final blow against the Sutler government.  He pleads with the citizens of London to join him at this time.  "People should not be afraid of their governments,” he informs them, “Governments should be afraid of their people." 

Of course, V offers Evey a chance to join him at his side for his final act of absolution and victory.  She initially fears this masked vigilante, so much so that she seeks sanctuary with television personality and co-worker Deitrich (Stephen Fry). At the same time a police investigation, led by Inspector Finch (the very good Stephen Rea), begins a search for the identity of the V.  The overall thrust of the film is within the relationship between Evey and V, which more or less plays off of some of the more-than-obvious elements of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  They seem like complete opposites with different aims at first (he wants to enact revenge against a government he despises, whereas she feels his methods brutal).  Yet, the two seem inseparable in the ways they are alike.  They both wear masks.  He bares a literal one while Evey is symbolic.  She has the identity of a dutiful citizen, but it is V that persuades her to take it “off’ so that she can become his ultimate sympathizer and assist him with getting rid of the Sutler administration once and for all.

As stated, V FOR VENDETTA was adapted for the big screen by the Wachowskis.  They have approached similar themes before.  In THE MATRIX films the savior – Neo – tries to battle and dismantle the machine world that enslaves humanity without mercy.  VENDETTA seems like a logical progression for the two and – as they demonstrated with the first two MATRIX films – they are more inspired and excited by giving audiences complex ideas.  On many levels, VENDETTA is even more thoughtful and intrinsically fascinating as a thematic work than their landmark sci-fi trilogy.  I think that the primary reason behind this is that THE MATRIX films had more decidedly black and white heroes and villains.  In VENDETTA, the hero walks a moral tightrope where the delineation between noble hero and anarchist is fairly skewed.  We instinctively know that it's "right" to root for Neo and the other human slaves, but can the same be said for V?

Of all of the comic book, masked personas that have occupied film adaptations, V just may be the most captivating.  He is largely an enigmatic figure, whose own history has only been hinted at (mysterious origins only lend to his gravitas as a figure).   He is played in a rather thankless performance by Weaving in the sense that he must perform without ever showing an inch of his face.  His performance is all in subtle posturing and body language, and he comes across and elegant, graceful, and deadly.  But what’s ever more enthralling is his self-righteous mindset, which at times is even as scary as the Sutler administration. 

Is he really a justified hero or is he really just a whack-job in a mask that is no more defensible than the terrorists that have committed past, true-life atrocities?  The understated brilliance of the handling of this role is how the Wachowskis never solve this conundrum for us.  V’s acts have a moral ambiguousness in them and have a rationalization that – on some levels – makes sense.  On the other hand, some could argue that the character is no more than a traditional anarchist terrorist that is no better than Sutler.  Sutler is a terrorist that uses intimidation to exert control over the people to spawn security in London.  V, on the same token, uses intimidation to exert control over people to spawn freedom in London.  Is he any more rationale or justified in his actions than Sutler?  Who knows?  Moreover, what would be worse - living under a fearful (but secure) totalitarian government or living in a fearful (and insecure) country like the "former" United States?  I get the impression that V would prefer the US model; chaos and opposing authority seems to be his preference over stability.  If anything, the fact that the film inspires such arguments is what makes it so inevitably captivating.

The rest of the cast is a solid conglomeration of good characters actors.  Stephen Rea finds the necessary low-key charisma for his role as the investigator who comes to learn of V’s secrets.  Natalie Portman may come across as bit too stiff with her British accent at first, but as the film progresses and the general thrust of her character achieves final fruition, it becomes easier to get more involved with her as a character.  Her arc is sort of interesting in the way she goes from docile and satisfied citizen, to one who grows to question and criticize her government and finally into a vocal partner in V’s final plan of ultimate victory.  Her support of V can take many interpretive forms.  Is it tragic and creepy that she falls for a man who destroys public property willfully or is it courageous and heroic that she realizes that her world needs a desperate shake-up and must come crumbling down at the hands of a terrorist? 

V FOR VENDETTA was directed by James McTeigue and his past film credentials reveal him to be more than competent with futuristic, sci-fi storytelling (he was the first assistant director on ATTACK OF THE CLONES and all of THE MATRIX films).  He fills the screen with several memorable images (an original and imaginatively choreographed knife battle between V and Sutler’s cronies, for example, as well as V’s final act of vengeance).  Yet, it’s his willingness to focus squarely on story, plot, and character and not overwhelm the screen with a heavy predominance of CG-laced images that emerges as the film’s significant achievement.   V FOR VENDETTA has the trappings of a summer popcorn escapist film, but it’s so much more layered, textured, and nuanced than that.  It’s politicized, provocative and ultimately wants to unsettle us more that inspire and uplift, all rare qualities for these types of films.

V FOR VENDETTA undeniably emerges as one of 2006’s most powerful, controversial, and disturbing entertainments.  Much like last year’s landmark comic book film, BATMAN BEGINS, this take on the classic Alan Moore graphic novel finds its time more at ease with honing in on themes and psychology than it does on turmoil and action scenes packed with havoc.  It remains surprisingly faithful to the dark, ominous, and sarcastically satirical vein of Moore’s source material while maintaining a topical edge that contemporary viewers can respond to.  Eventually, what sets the film so far apart from its lesser counterparts is in its confidence and conviction, not to mention its eagerness to be risky and stimulating.  Finally, we are slowly starting to see an age for this once lethargic genre where we are gripped to our seats not by flashy visuals or an overwrought soundtrack, but rather by the essence of its messages.  It's great to see comic book films be about something.  V FOR VENDETTA is a sure-fire, subversive triumph that never once looks back, nor does it ever apologize for its oftentimes irresponsible motives.

 

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