V for Vendetta

Scores of films appropriate ideas from elsewhere, reassemble them, and try to pass them off as interesting. Most are the equivalent of bad collages—jagged cut-outs in service of no discernible theme. Luckily V for Vendetta was assembled with far greater care. It is a mash-up of Cyrano de Bergerac, The Phantom of the Opera, The Three Musketeers, 1984, and Children of Men, but its storyline is so nicely crafted that we seldom notice the seams joining the pieces.

This 2005 film directed by James McTeigue is based on Alan Moore’s ten-volume graphic novel. Although Moore was reportedly upset by perceived sanitization of politics and social themes (such as drug use), there’s plenty of grit remaining and the film is superior in terms of narrative coherence. We are taken to the not-so-distant future—a dystopia in which an ill-advised American war has plunged the world into chaos. Only England has managed to avoid a collapsed civilization, a task accomplished by the rise of authoritarian rule. All malcontents are considered terrorists and are systematically eliminated, the news is manufactured, and High Chancellor Adam Sutler (played with Big-Brother-like creepiness by John Hurt) appears on large screens to congratulate Britons for their triumph over anarchy.

The machinery of tyranny is kept well-oiled by a compliant (and child-abuse-riddled) clergy, a medical establishment with a horrible secret to conceal, the ravings of a populist TV host (Roger Allman channeling Rush Limbaugh), and a police force that’s one part public safety and three parts Gestapo (icily headed by Tim Piggott-Smith, the unforgettable villain from The Jewel in the Crown).

Tyranny invites company, and it comes on November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, when a masked man calling himself V (Hugo Weaving) unleashes upon London a wave of bombings, revenge killings, and witty epigrams. In one year, he promises, he’ll do what the original Guy Fawkes failed to do: blow up the houses of Parliament, but in the name of truth and freedom. From here it’s a race against time. Can the government unmask V and preserve power, or will his campaign arouse the compliant masses? The Phantom bits come in V’s relationship with Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a young woman who inadvertently ends up on the government’s hit list.

Hugo Weaving deserves particular praise, since he manages to convey subtle and complex emotions despite having a painted mask completely obscure his face throughout the film. Luckily, the veteran actor (whose face, though you can’t see it in Vendetta, you may know from The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix series, or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) is more than up to the daunting task.

The film raises a host of ethical questions which compensate in filmic tension what they perhaps lack in originality. In a world in which conformity is de rigueur, where do homosexuals (Stephen Fry, Natasha Wightman) fit? How does a government retain power if citizens cease to believe in it? How does unchecked power deal with unbridled ambition? How much evil can be overlooked in the name of a greater good? And, in a post 9/11 world, how do we resolve the film’s central moral question: What freedoms shall we sacrifice in the name of security? And what if—like Chief Inspector Eric Finch (Stephen Rea)—you’ve come to suspect that the powers you’re sworn to defend may have created the very crisis from which they have vowed to protect the public?

This is a highly entertaining and well-acted film whose recent release on video is all the more reason for seeing it.—L.V. & P.B.

1 comment:

Dominique said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I just watched it and truly enjoyed the way the story was put together. So many clever little clues here and there. Like when we are told that a young girl was born in 1985 (i.e. after 1984), or this reference to the count of Monte Cristo at the end: "he was Edmond Dantes"...