When he attempted to blow up Parliament in November of 1605, Guy Fawkes certainly never imagined that he would some day provide the inspiration for a graphic novel. Nevertheless, Alan Moore (who also created “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”) and David Lloyd used Fawkes as the inspiration for a work titled “V For Vendetta.” First published in 1989, the story was a veiled attack on Margaret Thatcher’s ultra-conservative rule. There are those (and I will not impose politics upon this review by saying whether or not I am one of them) who feel the story has a certain relevance in today’s post-9/11, George W. Bush, Patriot Act era. Andy and Larry Wachowski – creators of The Matrix - have long been fans of the graphic novel, and they are the producers/writers behind the movie version of V For Vendetta. It is unclear whether or not they had additional partisan motives in adapting the story, but this is undeniably a film with strong political overtones.
On the surface, V For Vendetta seems kind of familiar. It’s set in a futuristic version of Britain, where a totalitarian regime is administered by Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt). British citizens are forced to live under difficult conditions: there is a nightly 11 PM curfew, “security” cameras record their every move, and those who fail to meet government approval (homosexuals, for instance) are promptly arrested and/or assassinated. There is significant distress about the state of the nation, but aside from the occasional small band of rebels, everyone is too afraid to protest.
Everyone, that is, except for V (Hugo Weaving), a terrorist who wears a Guy Fawkes mask and blows up a British landmark every November 5. V believes that the country is in a dire situation; he hopes that his particular brand of activism will wake everyone else up, sparking the kind of protest that can topple an unjust government.
Natalie Portman plays Evey, a young assistant at a cable news network. As a child, she saw her activist parents killed for daring to express their dissent. Evey is saved from rape one dark night when V comes to her rescue. He takes her to witness one of his bombings and they are spotted by a video camera. The Fingermen (a.k.a. cops) come looking for her, so V whisks her to his underground home, where he explains his motives. To reveal more about the plot would be to give things away, but it’s safe to say that Evey has a political awakening that makes her sympathetic to V’s cause, if not always with his methods.
There is an interesting dynamic at work in this story: V is, essentially, a terrorist. He blows things up as a way of taking shots at a government he disapproves of. The film carefully walks a line, never quite applauding his actions but not necessarily condemning them either. From a knee-jerk perspective, this might seem like a cop-out. In truth, this non-committal stance is necessary. Whether corruption should be fought with violence and aggression is questionable. On one hand, it is sometimes the only option available. On the other, who is the ultimate arbiter of morality, political or otherwise? I suppose the scale is tipped ever so slightly at the end, but that’s okay because we’ve had time to digest the question in our own minds.
I like the way the movie addresses this issue, and also how it draws a connection between V and Evey. (Her name is certainly no coincidence.) Both have had traumatic childhoods. Her initial political ambivalence stems from having seen where activism got her parents. V, meanwhile, has first-hand knowledge of Sutler’s corrupt rise to power. He strikes back not just by blowing things up, but by tracking down the powerful individuals responsible for hijacking Britain from its citizens. The two characters engage in meaningful debates about how to best rectify the situation, which makes for surprisingly engaging viewing.
The message of V For Vendetta is spelled out by the central character: “People should not be afraid of their government; the government should be afraid of its people.” This is a potent message, but not a new one. I think that the movie would have been better served overall had it shown more commitment to that sentiment. Believe it or not, I was reminded of David Fincher’s Fight Club, another film that showed characters using extreme terrorist methods of raging against the machine. (In that movie’s case, the machine was less political and more social.) Fight Club had a pissed-off quality about it that tapped into the inner rage of many a viewer. V For Vendetta lacks that anger, which to some degree dilutes the power of the message. I give the film much credit for even daring to bring up the issues that it does; my only regret is that it talks calmly and rationally about political corruption when I wanted to hear it engage in a primal scream.
There is much more to say about the film: that the performances are quite good, that director James McTeigue brings an effective style to the Wachowski’s screenplay, that the film is not particularly action-oriented yet has some moments of excitement nonetheless. Those things are all important but less central to the main reason why V For Vendetta is worth seeing: under the guise of comic book entertainment, the movie asks ambitious questions and raises provocative issues. The end result is uniquely cool.
( out of four)
V For Vendetta is rated R for strong violence and some language. The running time is 2 hours and 12 minutes.
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