The year is 2020 and the world is in turmoil. The US has collapsed into civil war brought about by plague, while across the pond Great Britain has fallen under the iron grip of a fascist, Christian conservative regime led by the domineering High Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt, “Hellboy”). Broadcast in Hi-Def on all televisions in England via the state run network, Sutler verbally bludgeons the people into submission with his daily tirades about terrorism, security and obedience, using the motto ‘Strength through Unity, Unity through Faith’. Most forms of art and literature are outlawed as subversive and the populace is under strict nightly curfews enforced by patrols of brutal police units known as Fingermen. Ideological dissidents and undesirables such as homosexuals and Muslims have all been deported or carted off to internment camps in the name of security and societal stability.
Against this backdrop we meet Evey (Natalie Portman), an aspiring actress and production assistant at the state run television network in London . On her way to a tryst with her boss past curfew, she is accosted by a group of Fingermen who intend to commit rape, or worse. She is saved at the last minute by a masked figure known only as V (Hugo Weaving, Agent Smith from the “Matrix” trilogy) who dispatches the Fingermen with a brutal array of martial arts and whirling daggers. To cap off her eventful evening, V invites Evey to join him for a ‘musical performance’ that encompasses blowing up the Old Bailey courthouse, complete with fireworks choreographed to the 1812 Overture blasting over the hijacked Emergency Broadcast System. It just so happens that the date is November 5, Guy Fawkes Day.
This is just the opening shot in what is to become an all out, one man assault on the Sutler regime. As he announces in a manifesto broadcast after hijacking the television studio, V intends to spend the year stirring unrest till the next November 5, when he vows to strike a crushing blow to the heart of the regime itself.
“V for Vendetta” is written and produced by the Brothers Wachowski, who brought us the “Matrix” films. Those movies were also about rebels taking a stand against a domineering overlord. However, “V” is less about special effects and more literary. The dialog in particular, cribbing bits from Shakespeare at will, is a cut above your average actioner and does more than its part in keeping the audience engaged. The film offers up a multitude of ideas that are all the more intriguing because we can’t pin down where the Wachowskis are coming from. Is this movie a parable about 2006, a cautionary tale about the dangers of a complacent populace, or pure dystopian fantasy?
Many people seem to be getting their feathers ruffled over the film’s implication that Terrorist and Revolutionary is essentially the same thing. However, strip away the post-9/11 blinders and the only real difference is which side of the issue the definer is standing on. This is doubly ironic given the references to the Boston Tea Party early in the film. One would think that making a movie about a terrorist in these times of real and manufactured paranoid is gutsy, but the people who are scared away by the subject are the very people the film lampoons.
The modern policy definitions of patriotism, immigration and domestic spying are all applied to good effect, taking the current hot button phrase, ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ to its logical endpoint. But the scariest part is that, while the film culls together these elements of the nanny state gone wrong from various points in world history, a startling number of them can be picked out of current events, allowing the film to transcend accusations of thematic extremism.
The film also smartly side steps the ‘sin’ of glorifying V by calling into question the validity of his motives. Are they wrought from a true sense of righteous indignation or are they a way for him to validate his personal vendetta against the regime? The film is careful to keep its pronouncements, such as V’s belief that “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people,” as open ended as possible.
Political theorizing aside, “V for Vendetta” is an action/adventure film at heart, and on that front it delivers with the best of them. The fight scenes are chaotic, but coherent for the most part, and suitably bloody. The special effects are also solid, but do not supplant the story as the film’s raison d’etra. There are many hints of the “Matrix” films throughout “V for Vendetta”, but the film’s dystopian setting harkens back to the likes of “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451”, while V’s relationship with Evey recalls elements of “The Phantom of the Opera.”
To be clear, “V for Vendetta” is nothing extraordinary, just good solid entertainment with more brains than the usual fare. There are moments of brilliance, such as V’s opening monologue composed almost entirely of words beginning with the letter ‘V’ and the television roast of Chancellor Sutler that ends in a hilarious homage to the old Benny Hill show. But things do get a bit muddled in the middle, where red herrings put forth to sustain the police investigation of V’s exploits start to seem like attempts to pad the films running time, and V’s justification for his treatment of Evey is of questionable plausibility. The movie also ticks all the requisite checkboxes for bad guys: a fascist dictator, the evil secret police, an Arch Bishop who is also a pedophile, a hate spewing televangelist and secret government experiments on the ‘undesirables’. But trite as they may be, the reason they don’t seem hackneyed here is because these are all part of our own recent history.
As with the dialog, the acting is also a cut above. As the enigmatic V, Hugo Weaving does a commendable job of giving an emotional center to a character whose face we never see. John Hurt shows that he can chew scenery with the best of them as the snarling Chancellor Sutler and Tim Pigott-Smith is suitably vile as Creedy, chief of the secret police. Portman is solid if unremarkable as Evey. She does well as the plucky damsel in distress early on, but gets murky as Evey struggles with her feelings for V (though the gratuitous view of her posterior in one scene will raise an eyebrow or two). Strong supporting performances are given by stalwart character actors Stephen Rea as the chief police investigator pursuing V, and Stephen Fry as the television network chief.
“V for Vendetta” could have easily devolved into a cacophony of gunfire and explosions, but chooses instead to engage the viewer in V’s exploits. This type of subliminal audience interaction is a rare thing in movies these days. The messages aren’t simple and are rather controversial, but that only adds to the film’s appeal. The movie concludes, as it must, with the success of one ideology over the other; but rather than pandering, “V for Vendetta” presents both sides, warts and all.
James McTeigue (director) / Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski (screenplay), Alan Moore, David Lloyd (characters)
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