V For Vendetta Review
V For Vendetta has balls, I'll give it that. It's bold and uncompromisingly political. It's also a confused train-wreck of a film that stands up and shouts its message out loud without having really thought its message through. It's provocative without having the intelligence to explore the ideas it raises. As an entertainment, it's wildly inconsistent. Like Equilibrium three years ago, it resembles 1984 crossed uncomfortably with The Matrix. V For Vendetta is better than Equilibrium. That film never got out of first gear while this one has long stretches that almost match its ambitions. I'd recommend seeing it for its sheer audacity but I'd also caution you to go with lowered expectations.
Based on a comic created in the early eighties by famed British author Alan Moore (The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell) and David Lloyd and adapted for the screen by the Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix), the movie's story takes place in London a couple of decades into the future. There has been a world war, apparently fought by the West against the Arab nations and this has resulted in the collapse of America. Britain has suffered horrific biological terrorist attacks and a frightened population has elected the Christian neo-fascist Adam Sutler (John Hurt), who rules with an iron fist. Anything that offends Sutler's values, such as Islam and homosexuality, has been outlawed.
Evey (Natalie Portman) is a young media professional working for BTN, the state-run television network. She has no love for Sutler but, like everyone else, she toes the line for fear of attracting the attention of the secret police. One night, breaking curfew on her way to a liaison with her boss, she does attract their attention, although not in an official capacity. Three police thugs have her cornered in an alley and are about to gang-rape her when she's rescued by a man in a hat, a cloak and a Guy Fawkes mask (Hugo Weaving).
He says his name is V and he takes her to watch the Old Bailey being destroyed by explosives, the first of a series of attacks he claims will inspire the public to rise up against their unjust rulers. On November 5th the following year, V promises to ignite a revolution by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. When Evey is mistaken for V's accomplice and hunted by the secret police, he takes her to his hideout. They become close, although V will not take off his mask in her presence. All she sees of him are his hands, which are horribly scarred. As November 5th draws closer, V's violent pranks escalate into cold-blooded murder and Evey begins to suspect that his campaign has less to do with justice than revenge.
Let's deal with V For Vendetta as a film first and then as a political statement. As a movie, it works in places. The opening is effective and the ending powerful despite its utter unbelievability (where did those crowds come from?). Half way through, there's a lengthy sequence set in a state prison which is so well done that it transcends the film despite the writers' best attempts to ruin it with a truly awful plot twist. Natalie Portman is sensational in these scenes. Completely de-glammed, her head shaved, she gives a tremendously raw performance. Her English accent by the way is excellent. But oh, that twist! It robs Evey of her heroism, turning her into a bystander in her own story, it destroys any possible sympathy for another major character and it all but scuppers the film dramatically. There were walkouts at the screening I attended.
The rest is patchy and unfocused. The film has too many characters, too many story threads. I haven't even mentioned the cop Finch, played by Stephen Rea, who is on V's trail and starting to have doubts about the government he works for. Rea has nearly as much screen time as Evey, probably more than V, but like Evey, he sits on the sidelines. He doesn't move the story.
Then there are the fight scenes. The Matrix-style action stands out like a sore thumb in a film that is mostly played for realism. Were these scenes demanded by the studio or perhaps by producer Joel Silver, who also made the Matrix films? They serve no purpose but to give dumber members of the audience a quick jolt. They make the already enigmatic V all the more vague. Is he a superhero? Is he bulletproof? What exactly is his nature?
The film's attempts at comedy don't work either. Stephen Fry plays a closeted TV chat show host - yes, another of Fry's saintly homosexuals (see also Peter's Friends and Wilde) - who unwisely performs a skit at Sutler's expense. This isn't particularly funny and it isn't credible for two reasons. One: Fry's character doesn't seem stupid or suicidal enough to attempt it. Two: state-run TV stations in fascist countries have censors on the spot to prevent things like that from happening.
Sutler himself might have been an interesting character if he ever came out from behind his towering video screen. Instead, he remains a one-note madman, played by John Hurt with scenery-chewing relish. His secret police chief Creedy (Tim Piggott-Smith) is similarly one-dimensional. Aeon Flux might not have been a great film but at least it had the brains to ask, why do men become fascists? V For Vendetta's bad guys might as well be in a Bond film: they're just plain evil.
The British population is depicted bizarrely. The movie keeps cutting to the reactions of a few selected households to show us how the nation is reacting - this has been done in The Truman Show and Ed TV among other films. Right from the beginning, everyone is dubious about Sutler, which undermines the film's dramatic arc. Wouldn't it have been better to show them being slowly won over by V? Instead, all state news broadcasts are greeted with cries of "bollocks", which reminded me of Austin Powers saying "shag" and the convicts in Alien 3 saying "wanker" - Hollywood loves British swear-words. This plot device begs the question: if the public are so sceptical, why is the propaganda channel constantly on in every home and pub? Has Sutler banned Sky Sports?
Technically, V For Vendetta is as well-produced as you'd expect from the makers of The Matrix. Although the film is set about twenty years into the future, there's no attempt to make London look "futuristic", which is probably for the best. First time director James McTeigue, who worked on the Matrix trilogy, makes the city look great and he does a decent job of staging scenes but he's not so hot at structuring and pacing.
Politically, the film reveals its naivety in the opening scene with a flashback portraying Guy Fawkes as a citizen revolutionary - a Che Guevera of the 17th Century. V is inspired by Fawkes, he dresses like him and he bases his plan on the Gunpowder Plot. In fact Guy Fawkes wasn't a revolutionary, he was a militant Catholic whose motive for blowing up Parliament was to wipe out King James and the Protestant establishment and return Britain to Catholic rule. His religious fanaticism would put him in Sutler's camp rather than V's.
This is typical of a film whose politics are like those of a sixth former who's discovered in some dubious "ism" a way of channeling his general frustration with life. Even on that level, it's confused. Moore and Lloyd's anti-Thatcherite, anti-fascist leftism blends awkwardly with the Wachowskis' contemporary liberal disdain for George W Bush and the religious right. Hence Sutler is a Christian fundamentalist as well as a fascist and muslims are persecuted along with homosexuals. Prisoners wear Guantanamo-style hoods and a character is executed for possessing a copy of the Qu'ran.
The trouble with the Wachowskis' transplanting of American issues into British politics is that we don't have the same problems. This a much more secular country than the USA and most British Christians belong to the moderate Church of England, which is not dominated by fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists like some large American churches. You wouldn't get far in Britain trying to rally people behind the cross. Alan Moore agrees incidentally and he's publicly criticised the filmmakers for ladeling their message on top of his.
Not that Moore's message is much more relevant. The spectre of a jackbooted, fascist Britain is a paranoid fantasy of the left that's even less troubling now than it was in the seventies and eighties when the National Front made headlines. Fascists have never been more than a small but noisy minority here. Just as Britons are unimpressed by god-botherers, nor are we taken with demagogues ranting under swastika-like symbols. The chances of a Hitler figure taking power in a cynical country whose national pride is rooted in having defeated Hitler are remote.
It's worth pointing out that fascism is itself used as a scaremongering tactic to limit freedom of speech. People are jailed in European countries for Holocaust denial and interrogated by police here in Britain for publicly questioning gay rights. Proponents of using the law in these ways claim it's necessary to keep fascists under control and prevent future Holocausts. By promoting such fears itself, V For Vendetta in a twisted way serves as propaganda for the kind of state control it wants to warn us about.
The film's underlying theme of freedoms lost is a pertinent one. However, it isn't fascists or religious fundamentalists who are threatening our freedoms, it's smiling, democratically elected father figures who think they know what's best for us better than we do. They don't need sinister conspiracies to justify their policies when the chaos of international affairs provides the atrocities they need. Didn't you think the secret behind the biological attacks in V For Vendetta was as tiresome as it was predictable? Aren't conspiracy theories just a political cop-out?
The film raises questions about terrorism, like what is the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter? Is V a terrorist for blowing up buildings and killing people? Well, the killings are for personal reasons so that's merely revenge but what about the bombs? There's some dialogue about how blowing up a building can change things, which can't help but call to mind 9/11. Of course V isn't blowing up office buildings packed with thousands of innocent civilians, he's destroying empty monuments at night so in this case the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist is quite pronounced and the question is answered. This is a film that makes you think, just not for very long. A smarter film would pose tougher questions.
Speaking of smarter films, Stephen Rea's character, the cop, calls to mind the detective played by Javier Bardem in John Malkovich's film The Dancer Upstairs. That shares some of the same themes as V For Vendetta - it's about a good policeman working for a bad regime, investigating bombings by a character not unlike V - but it's a much more mature examination of fascism and terrorism. If you find V For Vendetta as frustrating and unsatisfying as I did, give Malkovich's movie a try and see what you think.