by Lucius Shepard
March 23, 2006
Well, all right.
That consummate revolutionary Joel Silver, in league with those notable subversives, the Brothers Wachowski (The Matrix) and the bomb makers over at Warner Brothers, has produced one for you at a cost of seventy million dollars, approximately seventy times the cost of your average revolution. Based on a graphic novel (aren't all movies these days?) by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta was originally a reaction against Thatcherite Britain, fueled by tabloid fantasies that inspired Moore to claim in the introduction to the book that Thatcher and her cronies were poised to stamp out homosexuality in Britain and, in fact, were building concentration camps in which they intended to house HIV-positive patients. The Wachowskis have updated the source material, setting Moore's story in the 2020s and stuffing the film with references, both visual and verbal, to the current presidential administration in the United States.
Dystopias and our reactions to them have been the subject of movies since the 1920s, when Fritz Lang and Thea Von Harbou gave us Metropolis. This sub-genre peaked during the Vietnam era, especially in European cinema, with the release of films such as Godard's Alphaville, George Lucas' best movie, THX 1138, Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, and Peter Watkins' estimable trilogy, Privilege, The Peace Game, and Punishment Park, films so controversial that they did not thrive even in an era of conspicuous activism. In the years since, films like Brazil, a somewhat sanitized British version of 1984, Andrew Niccol's Gattica, and Verhoeven's Heinlein parody, Starship Troopers, have kept the tradition alive. But V for Vendetta is the first such picture in quite a while to comment upon a contemporary political condition, and thus it demands to be viewed not only as an entertainment, but to be taken with absolute seriousness.
In the year 202-, the United States, decimated by plague and civil war, has lost its superpower status. It's described by Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam), a government mouthpiece in the Fox News mold who goes by the sobriquet "The Voice of London," as "the world's largest leper colony." Britain has suffered its own losses—100,000 died in the St. Mary's Plague—and a ranting Orwellian dictator, Adam Sutler (John Hurt; in one of those meaningless ironies that filmmakers often indulge and delight in, he previously played Winston Smith in the British version of 1984) has seized power, enforcing his rule through the agency of the Gestapo-like Fingermen, who black-bag the heads of their victims Abu Ghraib-style. The film posits that the fear and inertial slumber of the populace as cultivated by Sutler and his minions are equally responsible for that rule.
Into this sorry excuse for Merrie England comes V (Hugo Weaving), a mysterious caped figure clad in ninja black, a grinning Guy Fawkes mask hiding his mutilated face, armed with knives, kung fu, and a hypodermic that he uses to give lethal injections to the villains who have wronged both him and his country. He announces himself on Guy Fawkes Day by blowing up Old Bailey while broadcasting Tchaikowski's 1812 Overture (a recurring item in the soundtrack) over loudspeakers, and proclaims to a national TV audience that exactly one year from the day he will return to finish the job Fawkes started by blowing up Parliament, hopefully with the help of the awakened British people. Thereafter he dashes about London slaying bad guys and leaving his mark, sort of a cross between the Zorro slash and the anarchist A.
Early in the proceedings, Evey (Natalie Portman), a young woman who works for an approximation of Orwell's Ministry of Truth, is saved by V from rape at the hands of the curfew police. For her own protection, he carries her off to his lair, which in true comic-book fashion he has given a name: the Shadow Gallery. Though initially put off by his menacing appearance and his penchant for delivering alliterative pronunciamentos that make it sound as if he were demonstrating the use of the letter V on Sesame Street, she eventually comes to sympathize with his politics and becomes more-or-less his disciple—since her parents were activists who were disappeared, she's not that tough a sell. A relationship develops between them, and they spend considerable time discussing politics and art. During these conversations, energy drains from the movie. Weaving tries manfully to animate his mask with his orotund vowels and cultured manner, but it's a losing proposition and for the most part V remains an enigmatic and rather unprepossessing superhero without portfolio, his personality obscured behind a comic-book trope. As for Portman, her British accent wanders in and out, varying from Cockney to upper crust. With her head shaven, as happens when she is imprisoned and tortured, she does an effective Joan of Arc impression. Otherwise, I'm afraid it's not good news. When she wistfully expresses to V that she wishes she could act . . . Well, we're right with her.
The rest of the cast is provided with little to do. Hurt, as Sutler, generally seems disgruntled. Tim Piggot-Smith as Creedy, the leader of the Fingermen, is unrelentingly evil. Stephen Fry as Dietrich, the host of a popular TV show that ultimately ridicules Sutler, does an Oscar Wildish turn. The most thankless role of all is left to Stephen Rea. Playing Finch, the lead detective in charge of tracking V down, it is up to him to explain things to us, never mind that we have, in many instances, just witnessed the events he is explaining. (This sort of role is becoming such a Hollywood mainstay, it should be categorized and have a special award at Oscar time: the Freeman, short for the Morgan Freeman Award.) Rea handles the gig with sadsack aplomb, chatting with his associate in what has to be one of Britain's most unflappable police stations. Considering that the city is under siege by a dangerous terrorist, and Sutler is haranguing the cops to run him to ground, you would expect to hear a few phones ringing and to see a couple of people scurrying about, acting hassled.
All that said, this is the best adaptation to date of Moore's work (you will understand that this is the faintest of praise if you have seen the other attempts, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman being the most recent). The main sections in which V for Vendetta comes alive, wherein we begin to apprehend some of the artistry of the graphic novel, are the fight scenes. V's cape swirling in silhouette against the night sky, bright knives tumbling in bullet time, gouts of scarlet assisting in the choreography—the Brothers W and their thumb-puppet director James McTeigue are in their comfort zone here, back on The Matrix turf, and it shows. Then it's back to more boring exposition. The sole exception to this pattern is the longish sequence in which Evey suffers a durance vile. While in prison, she reads letters apparently passed to her by a fellow inmate, a lesbian actress who—fearing that she is soon to die—wants to relate her life story. Ultimately Evey learns, among other things, that the source of V's mutilation and his rage against the machine is an experimental laboratory and a fire from which he emerged with his revolutionary sensibility refined. This sequence succeeds both in moving us and in reflecting Moore's clever narrative style.
Popular culture commonly upchucks the passions of history in distorted form as story panels and chunks of Technicolor. Under ordinary circumstances, one would have to be a determined literalist indeed to hold the feet of pop filmmakers to the fire and make them accountable for historical accuracy or the astuteness of their politics—but the times, unfortunately, require accountability when a film seeks to engage its audience in a dialogue about the moral underpinnings of terrorism, when for months we have listened to studio-sponsored bleats about the film's thought-provoking philosophy. Vendetta gets off on the wrong foot altogether when it attempts to equate Guy Fawkes, who inhabits the film's moral center, with a freedom fighter—Fawkes was in actuality a 17th-century Catholic dissident intent upon the assassination of King James I. That the exposure of his Gunpowder Plot was used by the monarchy to persecute Catholics and foreigners is a point that might been emphasized by the Wachowskis, but the Brothers W have never done more than skim the surface of their influences. Having, in The Matrix sequels, demonstrated a nodding acquaintance with contemporary French philosophy, they herein offer homilies culled from the writings of various political thinkers that come off sounding like pithy wisdoms devised by the owner of an anarchist fortune cookie factory.
"There are no coincidences, only the illusion of coincidence," V tells Evey.
Ah yes, Grasshopper.
Small wonder, then, that Alan Moore has called the Wachowski's portrayal of British culture "imbecilic" and removed his name from the picture. The Brothers W have obliterated all but the most token traces of moral ambiguity from his story and replaced his British-grunge mise en scène with one that is bare and unexploited. The Shadow Gallery, V's Phantom-of-the-Opera-like subterranean lair, has much the look of that scene from Star Trek in which Kirk and his crew visit a pasteboard castle belonging to an immortal. The opulent quarters and trappings of the Fascist ruling party are handled in the same generic fashion; and—standing in for the oppressed masses of London—a handful of patrons in one particular pub and a single family in their living room show up in repeated scenes throughout the film, all reacting in an identical way according to the dictates of the script (stupefied, terrified, jubilant, etc.). For a film that concerns itself with the arousing of a nation to take political action, V for Vendetta is woefully under-populated, utilizing mere dozens of extras until the final scene. I can't think of an A-list movie in the history of cinema that has been less persuasive in its evocation of a city and a milieu.
To whatever extent you applaud or deplore the Wachowskis for speaking their mind on current events, you have to wonder at their motivations. The Matrix pretended a revolutionary stance, but was essentially a highly successful marketing device, the corporate entity affecting a kind or unity with the consumer class, thereby weakening the entire concept of revolution and allowing the corporation to extract more money, more fruits of
the consumer's productivity. (For an elaboration of this notion, you may want to consult Empire and Multitude by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, a book that cites The Matrix to this end.) V for Vendetta may be more the same. But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Brothers W are not so cynical, that they have the interests of their fellow Americans at heart and are giving out a warning, saying don't let this happen here. Are they counseling us to bomb Congress? Doubtful. Are they intending to plant an idea, to provoke thought that may one day lead to action, or are they just surfing the wave of anti-Bush feeling so as to sell their product. If the former is their intent, well, my thought and the thought of most people I know has already been provoked past the point where we might be stimulated by the simplistic message projected by their film. Then the question becomes, at whom are they aiming said message? That answer, I fear, may surface in one or more of the many V for Vendetta chatrooms now extant when Galaxion 1408 essays the comment, "Anarchy rules!" To which Jedi99 is likely to reply in short order: "Dude!"