V for Vendetta

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/17/06 16:12:59

"Even Alan Moore himself might approve of this stunner."
5 stars (Awesome)

There are still people out there who are perfectly content to dismiss a film out of hand as juvenile junk the moment that they learn that it is based on a comic book or graphic novel; to their eyes, such things are a debasement and perversion to the good name of literature (although they are willing to let things like “The Da Vinci Code” or the oeuvre of John Grisham slide). Although there is plenty of idiotic trash out there like “Fantastic Four” to make such a case, the truth is that such films have gradually gotten smarter and more thoughtful recently. Just in 2005, three of the best films of the year, “A History of Violence,” “Sin City” and “Batman Begins” had their roots in graphic novels and you could hardly hope for three more intelligent or well-made examples of contemporary cinema. (If any of them had been named Best Picture at the Oscars a couple of weeks ago, I for one would have been immensely cheered and satisfied.) Like those films, the new action epic “V for Vendetta” is also based on an acclaimed graphic novel and it also transcends its genre trappings to provide a visually astonishing and intellectually stimulating work that is as intelligent as it is entertaining. Those who would dismiss it because of its ancestry should probably reconsider because if they don’t, they will be missing one of the more provocative works of popular entertainment to emerge from a major studio in a long time.

Based on the mini-series created by famed comics author Alan Moore (whose works have previously inspired the flawed-but-interesting “From Hell” and the disastrous “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”), “V for Vendetta” posits a world of the not-too-distant future that comes across as frighteningly plausible. In it, America has been laid low by disease and civil war and London is now the unquestioned superpower of the world. Thanks to unrest caused by a mysterious disease that killed thousands, a fascist-leaning government, led by Adam Sutler (John Hurt) was swept into power on a platform that exploited the fears of the populace in such a way that they voluntarily gave up most of the freedoms that you and I take for granted. Now, undesirables (homosexuals, dissidents and various “others”) are dealt with harshly, the government officials have effectively isolated themselves from those they are supposed to be serving and any difficulties are effectively spun and smoothed over by the government-run media (mostly a television network not a million miles removed from the Fox News Channel).

As the film opens, a young news intern named Evey (Natalie Portman) is caught out on the streets after curfew and accosted by a group of depraved police who suggest nothing as much as the Droogs from “A Clockwork Orange” with badges. Before anything can happen, the assault is interrupted by a mysterious man (Hugo Weaving), outfitted in a cape and a Guy Fawkes mask (Fawkes was the 17th century rebel whose failed attempt to avenge the persecution of Catholics by King James I by blowing up Parliament is still commemorated today with bonfires and fireworks), who makes short work of the attackers with some fancy knife play and spirits Evey away to the rooftops as he conducts the bombing of the Old Bailey to the tune of the “1812 Overture.” While the government tries to put a positive spin on the incident–they claim it was a “scheduled evening demolition,” the police, led by the sleazy and corrupt Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith) and the doggedly earnest Finch (Stephen Rea) struggle to find any leads leading them to the man known only as V.

A little while later, V invades the TV studio where Evey works and broadcasts his intent to blow up Parliament in one year’s time unless the populace begin to stand up to the corruption around them. At one point, V is cornered by a cop and Evey comes to his aid, a kindness which he repays by bringing her to stay in an underground lair that serves as a mournful memorial to the world that once was that is chock-full of forbidden films (including “The Count of Monte Cristo), literature and even a well-stocked jukebox. While biding his time, V goes around picking off various high government officials who, Finch discovers, worked together on a horrifying secret program that may hold the key to V’s shrouded past. After being lured into aiding in one such attach, Evey leaves V and takes shelter with Deitrich (Stephen Fry), a popular TV entertainer who has some secret and rebellious notions of his own. When he recklessly spoofs Sutler on the air, his flat is invaded and he is killed and Evey is imprisoned, shaved bald and tortured by people demanding to know the identity of V. She refuses to aid them and by doing so, she winds up freeing herself–mind, body and soul–and this once-insignificant person winds up being one of the key players in the growing revolt of the population.

Because it has been well-reported in the media that Alan Moore has publicly disassociated himself from the film, some may surmise that “V for Vendetta” is a simple-minded bastardization of his provocative original story. In truth, Moore’s scorn stems more from a general distrust of Hollywood (which you can hardly blame him for after “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”) and a specific beef with producer Joel Silver (who claimed in a press conference early in production that Moore had endorsed the film when he had done no such thing) and if he ever does see his way to watching the film, I suspect that he will discover that while some of the details may have changed (Moore wrote his tale in the mid-1980's as an indictment of the policies of Margaret Thatcher and much of the political material has been updated to reflect current concerns), both the basic story and his underlying ideas–chiefly his notions that it is the ordinary citizens who wield true power, and not those in the government who try to convince them otherwise, and that, as V puts it, “Ideas are bulletproof”–remain front and center.

In fact, the strongest sequences in the film–including Evey’s capture and torture, the haunting meeting between V and one of his former tormentors (Sinead Cusack) and a moving flashback to the sad story of a young actress (Natasha Wightman) who is forced to pay the ultimate price for being her own person–come almost directly from Moore’s original work. As the film progresses, some of the more cynical fans of the book may begin to suspect that this film will eventually cop out and turn away from its bleakly inevitable conclusion to something more conventionally uplifting and audience-pleasing. I’ll admit to being one of those people and I was surprised and pleased to discover that it doesn’t pull any punches and climaxes with perhaps the most startling image in a big-budget studio film since the buildings came tumbling down at the end of “Fight Club.”

In adapting Moore’s sprawling narrative into a workable screenplay, the Wachowski Brothers have come up with a balance of thoughtful philosophy and all-out action that feels more natural and organic than it did in their “Matrix” films (in which the more intelligent discourse tended to get lost amidst the often-stunning carnage). There are some hiccups here and there–the details of Evey’s separation from and reunion with V are somewhat sketchy and I would like someone to explain how V was able to order and send 100,000 Guy Fawkes masks to the people of London without being noticed–but this is still a smart adaptation. The most important addition has been to beef up the character and backstory of Evey, a smart move that makes her gradual transformation more convincing in the end. First-time director James McTeigue (who was the first assistant director on the “Matrix” films and “Attack of the Clones” and who is not a pseudonym for the Wachowskis, as some have alleged) is also able to find a compelling balance between the more introspective character-driven moments and the thunderously exciting action scenes.

The quality of performance is an aspect of big-budget action filmmaking that is usually ignored most of the time–it is generally assumed that the performers are going to be spending more time dodging explosions and reacting to unknown special effects to do much of anything else–so it comes as a blessed relief to discover that the performances here are uniformly strong and sure. For Portman, a superlative actress (and not a half-bad rapper) who tends to wilt somewhat when in the throes of a lackluster script (as a close look at the “Star Wars” movies will prove beyond a doubt), her turn as Evey is an inspired bit of work that convincingly demonstrates the gradual radicalization of a young woman whose eyes have finally opened to the world around her. As V, Hugo Weaving overcomes the seemingly insurmountable problem of spending his every on-screen moment hidden behind an immobile Guy Fawkes mask (for all intents and purposes, his role is essentially a voice-over job) and transforms a collection of cool action moves and slogans into a genuinely flesh-and-blood creation. Among the supporting performances, John Hurt is appropriately malevolent as the sinister Cutler, whose every appearance raises the specter of Big Brother (perhaps an in-joke reference to Hurt’s work in the film version of the thematically similar “1984") and Sinead Cusack makes the most of her one big scene in which she literally confronts the sins of her past and is relieved to shed that burden for good. Best of all is Stephen Rea as perhaps the one decent and just lawman in a world gone wrong–he is very good as a man who does what he believes to be right until he can no longer convince himself that this is the case.

Because it features at its center a hero who unapologetically embarks on a wave of violent revolt against the government in order to inspire revolt, there will no doubt be plenty of people ready to condemn “V for Vendetta” as an effort from depraved liberals in Hollywood to glamorize and promote the ideals of terrorism. This is, of course, laughable and presumes that all viewers–except for the critics, of course–are simple-minded sheep who will slavishly imitate any behavior that they see on the screen. What it may hopefully do, if enough people see it and respond to it, is remind the entertainment industry that there used to be a time when popular entertainment was allowed to comment on what was going on in the world instead of simply ignoring it altogether. (As proof of this, the end credits are accompanied by the Rolling Stones tune “Street Fighting Man,” a once-incendiary anthem that shakes off nearly 40 years of classic-rock dust to resonate with a renewed sense of power.) If that happens, and provocations like “V for Vendetta” become the rule rather than the exception, I suspect that even the legendarily cranky Alan Moore might find some good in such a development.

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