Director: James McTeigue
Starring: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea
Rated R for strong violence and some language.
On my way out of the theatre last night, I overhead something wonderful: an argument. It was a debate about the meaning of V for Vendetta, the new film from the Wachowski Brothers, who last brought us the brilliant Matrix and it’s dismal sequels. V is a triumphant return to form for the Wachowskis, a thrillingly provocative tale packed with hard questions and suggesting harder answers. There hasn’t been a genre film this intriguing since, well, The Matrix. But more about that in a minute.
V for Vendetta is based on a twenty-year-old graphic novel by legendary comic writer Alan Moore. It’s set in a vague dystopian future, in which the United States has crumbled into chaos and poverty, leaving England as the west’s only remaining superpower. England is run by a fascist dictator (John Hurt, playing Big Brother in a deliciously ironic turn) who keeps the populace in check through fear and manipulation. The government controls the media, art has been largely abolished and the private lives of citizens are monitored and regulated.
Enter V (Hugo Weaving), a caped “terrorist” whose face is perpetually hidden beneath a grinning Guy Fawkes mask. V has an elaborate plan to incite the populace against their soul-crushing government. He is both an artist and an assassin whose acts of mayhem are punctuated with Shakespearian soliloquys and pirate broadcasts of Tchaikovsky. His vision is to unite the people in an uprising on November 5th, also known as Guy Fawkes Day.
On the night that V makes his vendetta known to the world, he crosses paths with Evey (Natalie Portman), the orphaned daughter of two political activists who were murdered by the government long ago. With one impulsive act, Evey inadvertantly finds herself on the wrong side of the law, and in an effort to save her from the jackbooted government agents, V kidnaps Evey and takes her to his secret underground lair.
At this point, the philosophy of the film begins to get complicated. Evey is first charmed by V and his romantic ideology. But in the days that follow, she learns of his darker nature. V is a killer, you see, driven by passions both violent and veangeful. When she learns of the murder of a high-ranking government official, she fearfully asks V if he killed the man. “Yes,” he responds calmly.
“Are you going to kill more people?” she asks.
Terrified by such calculated passion, Evey plans her escape, and from this point forward, there are many unexpected twists. V continues to wage his one-man war against the oppressors and Evey struggles to find her identity. In the coming insurrection, will she side with V and his frightening form of justice, or will she escape to a more peaceful existence? The answer isn’t as simple as you might expect.
Stirring the pot is Detective Finch, played by the magnificent Stephen Rea. Finch has been assigned to track down V and stop him. His investigation uncovers the disturbing truth about V’s origin, and in the end Finch himself will have choices to make. He is driven by the ideals of “the party,” but haunted by questions that put him on thin ice with his superiors.
That’s a basic outline of the plot, but it doesn’t scratch the surface of the film’s ideology. As with The Matrix, the Wachowskis have littered their screenplay with allusions to contemporary conflicts. Astute viewers will find familiarity in the government’s color-coded warnings broadcast over television and radio, and war-supporters will likely notice a Nazi-style poster with the slogan “Coalition of the Willing” emblazoned across the top. The fascist government trades notably in religious jargon, and there is at least one explicit reference to the evil dictator as a “conservative.” And yet, and yet …
V makes for a questionable hero. He is willing to do anything, to sacrifice anyone for the sake of his cause. With the big picture in mind, he does monstrous things, and the scene involving the old coroner is enough to freeze one’s blood. In this way, V himself can also be viewed as a reflection of today’s gung-ho movement for freedom at any cost. Early in the film, V tells the people of London that if they want to blame someone for their oppression, they need only look in the mirror. But isn’t V himself a mirror reflection of the extreme faction that he opposes? There is a difficult revelation at the end of the second act which calls into question all of V’s noble intentions.
The film is well-made, and director James McTeigue (who acted as Assistant Director on the Matrix films) crafts a picture that is never dull to look at. He paints London in fairy-tale tones and creates a world that is not realistic, but infinitely believable. The story lends itself to operatic gestures, and McTeigue takes full advantage of that angle. The film swells and lulls with epic grandeur.
Natalie Portman is effective despite a somewhat dodgy British accent, but the film belongs to Hugo Weaving. Saddled with somewhat cumbersome dialogue, he plays the words with melody and meaning, and manages to create a genuine character beneath the grand pretentions. Performing the entire film with his face hidden beneath a mask, Weaving uses evocative body language to make V charming, intimidating, funny and terrifying.
It’s interesting to note that this big, special-effects laden film was never considered a “summer movie.” Originally slated for last fall, the release was pushed forward to spring (to allow more post-production time). Perhaps the studio considers the film too substantive for a summer tentpole.
I assume there will be endless debates about V for Vendetta. Good. Love it or hate it, it’s been a long time since we’ve had such a thought-provoking piece of pop-culture.