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V for Vendetta is a rich and strange little nugget of a movie. Based on a 25-year-old comic book by the famously eccentric Alan Moore, and produced by the equally eccentric Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix), the film serves as a political allegory for our times, as well as an homage to such classics as Phantom of the Opera and George Orwell’s 1984. But while the late Adrian Biddle’s cinematography seems cut from pure velvet, there is no velvet touch in V for Vendetta. It hammers its messages with a manic relentlessness that could be characterized as absurd. It will inflame some for its seeming moral recklessness — its hero plans to destroy Britain’s Houses of Parliament to instigate societal change — while others will undoubtedly delight in its drumbeat of a people taking back control of a government gone bad.
It all seems dense and important and politically meaty, but it really isn’t. At its core, V for Vendetta is your garden variety tale of a man wronged who obsessively seeks revenge. In that regard, it’s a classier, more elegant cousin to the Vincent Price chestnut The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
Captive audience: Weaving and Hurt
The movie gains its weight not from the masked man at its center but from the rotten, corrupt system he fights. It’s 2020 and the world’s in turmoil. The U.S. has turned into a virus-infected wasteland, while Britain has stemmed its own chaos by shutting itself off from the rest of the world, allowing itself to be ruled by High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt), whose glowering visage appears to his goon-like ministers on a massive Big Brother-inspired screen. (God hasn’t saved the Queen, apparently.)
Sutler’s party appears to have based its tenets on Germany’s Nazi party. Forget freedom of speech: Any vocal dissent or public spouts of satire are met with a black bag over one’s head and an abrupt disappearance, presumably forever. Ditto if you’re a homosexual. Or if you happen to harbor any cultural material that’s been blacklisted.
The populace is spoon-fed propaganda from a single source — the British Television Network — and they lap it up, partly out of fear, partly out of habit, partly because they have no one to lead the revolution for them.
Then along comes V.
Sporting a white metal-based mask modeled after the likeness of Guy Fawkes, who in the 17th Century was foiled in his one-man plot to blow up Parliament, V is viewed by the government as a terrorist and by the people as a potential savior. With its faintly rosy cheeks and broad, taunting grin, the mask can appear either friendly and appealing or sinister and demonic, depending on the angle from which it’s viewed. From behind it, V, whose true identity is never revealed, works his rabble-rousing magic.
His plans are ever-so-slightly disrupted when he saves a young girl named Evey (Natalie Portman) from a band of attackers one night. Evey later comes to V’s aid, and an unlikely bond forms. It takes time for the bond to seal, but when it finally does, rest assured it’s with a kiss.
The story is told mainly from Evey’s point of view, as she comes to learn that V, while he might have issues, also has the good of the British people at heart. This is where the movie’s themes gets sticky — particularly if you liken V to contemporary terrorists such as Osama bin Laden. Our sympathies are meant to align with this destruction-bent madman. But director James McTeigue is careful to delineate: V has a reason for killing all of the high-powered government officials on his short list. And the movie makes it abundantly clear that a large part his motive is revenge, pure and simple. His greater destructive tendencies are meant to symbolize change — and his plans to destroy Parliament, for instance, are broadcast a year in advance of the actual deed, plenty of time to evacuate the building.
“We don’t need a building,” he purrs. “We need ideas.”
Some critics have found the filmmakers’ notion of a glorified terrorist socially irresponsible. But as the movie frames it, the character of V is less a terrorist than a revolutionary, fighting men corrupted by power in the hopes that good men will follow as their replacements. Besides, as the filmmakers point out, it’s a coming together of the masses that brings about change, democratic or otherwise, not murder and mayhem.
Though we never see his face, and his voice is muffled, Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith in the Matrix films) still manages to turn in a stunning performance as V. The role could have easily degenerated into laughable (for proof, witness Willem Dafoe’s woeful turn as the masked Green Goblin in Spider-Man), but Weaving finds the right balance of flamboyant flourish and quietly subtle, effective mannerisms. In this actor’s hands, even the smallest cock of the head says so much.
Portman has little else to do but react to V. Still, her presence is essential — she’s our way in to the movie’s emotional center. Stephen Rea lends balance as the ruling party’s chief inspector who uncovers an unspeakable crime. And Tim Pigott-Smith is creepy-crawly as the Chancellor’s right-hand henchman Creedy, whose victims vanish into dank little cells, never again to emerge. Stephen Fry has a fine, surprisingly touching bit as a popular TV host, and as Sutler, John Hurt is all over-the-top snarls and scowls.
As with any hopeful blockbuster of this size and scope, V for Vendetta contains a few sizable plot holes. For instance, it’s alluded to but never verified that V has recruited the help of others. One scene, the details of which I can’t reveal here, bears this out if you happen to think back to it after seeing the movie. This, however, I can reveal: How else would V be able to ship 700,000 facsimiles of his costume to Britain’s citizenship in one day? In a government this domineering, any shipping company would be under strict government control. For that matter, where does one even get 700,000 Guy Fawkes masks? No matter, because the end result — a nation assembled as one, dressed as V and gloriously defiant, is a visual knockout.