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V for Vendetta ( )
Directed by James McTiegue
Written by Andy and Larry Wachowski, based on the graphic novel (whether Alan likes it or not) by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
V for Vendetta
 
Principal Cast
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
Official Website
The Alan Moore Fansite
The V for Vendetta Shrine
Wikepedia entry for Guy Fawkes
Natalie Portman Fansite

Ratings

One star - three day old burrito
Two stars - leftover potato salad
Three stars - green chile cheeseburger
Four stars - chicken enchiladas
Five stars - grilled salmon with avocado sauce
 
V for Vendetta
 
V for Vendetta
 
V for Vendetta
 
V for Vendetta
 
V for Vendetta
 
V for Vendetta
Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Newbert

"Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
the gunpowder treason and plot.
I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot."

"Every war -- when it comes, or before it comes -- is represented not as a war, but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac." -- George Orwell

I don't believe George Orwell would have allowed that someone like Guy Fawkes could exist under a true police state (17th century England notwithstanding), but if you can imagine what George Orwell would have done with Batman, and if you have felt a slowly germinating sense of unease under our developing political climate, then you should have something that resembles V for Vendetta, a righteous superhero fantasy from director James McTiegue and the Wachowski Brothers, whose last work was the hyperactive Matrix trilogy. Much like that guns-and-philosophy epic, this one is also built upon balletic action and rage against the machine; and while it isn't quite the same kind of slugfest, I'm happy to say that it's one of the few movies lately to have exceeded my expectations, and those were fairly high, after hearing of writer Alan Moore's displeasure with the whole project.

Moore's reputation as the Mad Hatter of the comic book world has made him seem a bit of a crank lately, but his wrath with the production is seeded from earlier disappointments in Hollywood, such as a cheerfully moronic adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen a few years ago. So I can understand some trepidation in watching the graphic novel he created with artist David Lloyd being brought to the screen; I can even sympathize with his desire to remove his name from the credits (an anxiety that Lloyd hasn't shared, by the way). But he needn't have worried. The Wachowski Brothers have adapted V for Vendetta particularly well, keeping faith with its motivating spirit and plugging it straight into the modern zeitgeist. Their protégé McTiegue has infused it with a detailed, unifying vision that preserves those aspects of the comic that work best on screen. Its spiritual ancestors are The Phantom of the Opera, The Count of Monte Cristo, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and a 400-year old icon of British dissent. McTiegue's film draws on their mythological power and feeds it back to you. When I hear Moore state that the script is "rubbish," I half-wish the producers would say, "Alan, tell you what -- you keep on raining, and we'll just keep on being the parade."

The changes from the graphic novel are mostly in the film's structure, streamlining the narrative so that the whole thing moves faster and smoother, not engaging itself with as many digressive plot lines. (Some characters have also fallen by the wayside, as has the Fate computer.) The film is still a tight two and a half hours, packed with suspense and action, set off by refreshingly intelligent dialogue. It's set in the near future (as so many political parables are), England having devolved into a police state, following terrorist attacks on the London underground and the city's water supply. The fascist Norsefire party, led by first man Adam Sutler (John Hurt), has won control of the government and instituted a program of repressive groupthink and societal cleansing, which includes rounding up the "undesirables" such as homosexuals, intellectuals and artists, then giving them over to profane research experiments. Meanwhile, the streets are patrolled by Gestapo-like agents known as Fingermen, and the media is used to keep the populace in line by stimulating near-constant fear and constraining the public discourse. It's a government of murderous bullies who have no intention of leaving any stones in their hearts unturned.

Into this steps V (Hugo Weaving), a mysterious vigilante who conceals his identity behind a smiling mask of the aforementioned Fawkes, while displaying a dizzying, dazzling dexterity with diffuse, dilatory introductions -- and sharp knives. He's charismatic, literate, given to quoting Shakespeare, and even a little hammy, but absolutely passionate about using violence to achieve his dream of a free society and justice against Norsefire. (He's fond of saying things like, "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.") On the same night that he uses explosives and fireworks to demolish the landmark Old Bailey, he also saves a young woman named Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) from almost being raped by a gang of police thugs. Evey is the daughter of executed political activists, and an intern for the Big Brother-ish BTN (British Television Network); she's sympathetic to V's cause, but not to his unique perspective. That is, until she's captured, interrogated -- and tortured.

V announces that on November 5th, he'll destroy the Houses of Parliament, and Sutler assigns Inspector Finch to find and stop him. As played by the terrific Stephen Rea, he's a weary, conflicted veteran who's smart enough to realize that he's doing the work of evil men, though careful enough not to invite their interest. His investigation into V's identity dovetails with the murders of several former officials of the Larkhill Resettlement Camp, and leads to his moral awakening, as he begins to understand exactly how Norsefire came to power, and what the cost has been. It's to Finch that the Wachowski's (and Moore) have given what often is called "a moment of clarity," where he sees how everything in his experience is connected and arrives at a single point of historical summary; in the film, this moment arrives in conjunction with an impressive array of falling dominoes that's stirring and almost profound in it's simple metaphorical explication of how a good society can tumble into a toxic mess.

It's an angry, spitting-mad twist on the superhero myth, placing the hero's origin in a scarring, traumatic event that colors everything he does later (just like Batman), and asserting that there's little way to understand it unless you've been there. The villains in V for Vendetta are characterized with the banality of evil, while the good are trying to gauge the boundaries of their freedoms like animals pacing at the edges of their cages, and it follows that they're fundamentally neurotic. Evey is courageous at times, and cowardly at others; V is both heroic and monstrous; Inspector Finch is noble and self-compromising, etc. The character arcs that Lloyd and Moore created remain much the same, though it should be mentioned that there is less of Moore's hallmark ambiguity. Or I should say, it's easier to tell who the bad guys are, and who deserves our compassion. I'm glad to point out that the film preserves the story line of Valerie, the inmate whose history fires Evey's resolve. Valerie is imprisoned, tortured, experimented upon, and eventually murdered for keeping her integrity as a member of an "alternative" lifestyle. The fantastic Natasha Wightman portrays Val's bravery and compassion with grace, one of the genuinely heartbreaking stretches that this film serves.

The other performances are tremendous as well. Hugo Weaving plays V with the only tools at his command -- his voice, his body language and gestures, his general attitude, including tilts of the head, slight posture changes, timing of speech and action, etc. He pulls it off masterfully, giving life to a character whose expressions are impossible to read. And while I suppose by now we all understand how good an actress Portman can be, here she goes the extra mile (even letting her head be shaved on camera for the role; it gives an already attractive actress a sharp, aggressive beauty). Her Damascus Road experience is the centerpiece of the film, an unnerving passage of transformation. Shy and self-effacing at the beginning, Evey hones herself to become as sharp as hardened steel, a human analogue of one of the knives in V's arsenal. You can see it mostly in Portman's eyes and posture, and the strength that she adds to her voice in the picture's second half; it practically rings with confident virtue.

Visually the film is poised and sure, replacing the claustrophobic feeling in David Lloyd's artwork -- all those heavy, black compositions, washed by pale colours and caught in harsh, tight perspectives -- with greater space and freedom of movement, while retaining the noir stylings. Cinematographer Adrian Biddle's palette is a beautiful mix of red, black and yellow, thriving amongst dark shadows and keen lighting. Watch how V's mask plays with the light, fades in and out of darkness, or how the camera slides through the space on a set effortlessly. For adrenaline junkies, the finale's showdown -- a dance of bullets vs. knives -- is stunningly choreographed and executed, and on a par with many of the best Matrix spectacles.

Ultimately, this is a very moving film, excited by its own idealism. Far from being grim, it's often very funny and at times, surprisingly gentle. Near the end, V manages one last tête-à-tête with Evey, a chance to use a forbidden item -- a jukebox:

V: Would you like to dance?
Evey: It's the eve of your revolution and you want to dance?
V: A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having...
V for Vendetta dances and spins and sings and screams, and eventually detonates in an apocalyptic finish that channels memories of 9/11, while simultaneously indulging in the guilty pleasure and thrill of watching the world burn, if only because you know things will be different on the other side. Its heroes are questionable, but only because they're trying to shake off the fear that plagues them. "I'm tired of being afraid all the time," Evey says, and maybe it's a sign of the times, but you can understand what she means without her saying anything else. Her final gift from V is a choice -- and it isn't quite the choice she makes in the novel, though it's still as daring. More subversive than Hollywood gets nowadays, it's a lovely picture, more so for some naive optimism, a hope that society will tire of fear and eventually of what Orwell called the only certain image of the future, "a boot stamping on a human face -- forever." But maybe it doesn't have to be. As Evey learns, fear is a mind-killer, and compassion can be a path to courage.
"I don't know who you are… I may never see you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope that you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you." -- Valerie

Copyright © 2005 David Newbert

David Newbert worked for public and university libraries for several years while studying film and literature, then joined the college book trade. He grew up on the East Coast, though he currently lives in New Mexico, where the aliens landed. He holds a vendetta.


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