There’s a scene that takes place in V for Vendetta’s final reel or so, where the “hero” of the film — a terrorist in a Guy Fawkes mask known only as “V” — sets up an elaborate array of black and red dominos. With a flick of his finger, he sets them in motion, and as they collapse, they reveal a stylized inversion of the classic anarchy “A.” Intercut with this are scenes of the detectives who are on V’s trail trying to put everything together and figure out his master plan.
It’s actually a very cool sequence in all, and sets the stage for the film’s grand finale. However, there’s something about this sequence that serves as a nice summation of the film’s overall approach and outlook. Put simply, V for Vendetta is as much a propaganda piece as the television newscasts used by the film’s corrupt government. And much like V and his dominos, the filmmakers — in this case, the Wachowski brothers, who wrote the screenplay based on Alan Moore’s graphic novel — line up every single one of their targets and knock them down with style to spare. And with ‘nary an ounce of subtlety or ambiguity to be found.
This updated version of V for Vendetta moves the story from England in the late 20th century after a limited nuclear war to England in the not-too-distant future, after America’s “War On Terror” has taken a turn for the worse. The U.S. has been reduced to civil war, but England has slowly been recovering from a biological attack that killed tens of thousands and threw the country into turmoil. An ultra-conservative government named Norsefire has risen from the ashes of this tragedy, and they’re doing everything they can to stamp out any potential threat. Which, in this case, includes Muslims, homosexuals, the press, and anyone with the slightest bit of dissidence in them.
Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) is a young woman who works for the state-run television station. While out past curfew one night, she is caught by a group of secret police (aka “fingermen”) who threaten to rape and kill her. She is rescued by V, who comes swooping in with twirling knives and a simply stunning amount of purple prose. As it turns out, the day is November 5, and V plans to pay homage to Guy Fawkes’ failed attempt to blow up the houses of Parliament with a little demolition of his own.
Soon, V escalates his campaign against the government, taking over the airwaves and broadcasting a call-to-arms to the populace. He’s also begun actively assassinating members of the ruling party, including Lewis Prothero, who is the government’s mouthpiece on the airwaves, and Father Lilliman, a corrupt priest who enjoys playing, um, “confession” with young girls.
Evey is caught up in the wake of V’s agenda, hiding out with him in the so-called “Shadow Gallery,” a subterranean complex where V has compiled a huge amount of contraband goods. It’s clear that V sees something in Evey, and begins grooming her as an acolyte and potential ally, though Evey has understandable qualms about her mentor’s methods.
Meanwhile, the government officials are beside themselves as they try to put a stop to V’s actions. Leading the pursuit is Detective Finch (an extremely haggard-looking Stephen Rea), a man who begins piecing together what could be a bigger conspiracy that is being revealed by V’s actions. But hot on his trail is Creedy, head of the secret police. And looming over everyone is Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt), who seems to be channelling his best Hitler impression as he gesticulates wildly and urges the police to teach V the “real meaning of terror.”
Even though the film is set in a futuristic Britain, everything in the film can be easily construed as a comment and condemnation of current America, specifically right-wing America. The ultra-conservative government and its views on and treatment of Muslims and homosexuals, the Fox News-esque television network, the fact that all of the main political figures have ties to big business, the blatant appropriation of Christian imagery, the torture of prisoners, complete with Abu Ghraib-esque black hoods — the film practically makes the parallels for you. What’s more, every time the former 13 colonies are mentioned in the film, they’re in a rather pathetic state of being, and it’s obvious their “War On Terror” has been a complete failure (something the Brits find a perverse joy in).
Mind you, I’m no fan of the current administration, and I welcome any intelligent, thoughtful discussions and critiques of its actions. But in their drive to be timely, to provide a relevant critique of the government, the makers of V for Vendetta have actually stripped their film of any power and conviction it might have had otherwise.
What could have been an interesting and thought-provoking critique instead becomes heavy-handed browbeating. At no time is the viewer given a chance to process things and figure them out for themselves. The viewer is taken by the hand and has everything spelled out, just to make sure you see how bad and evil and diabolical the bad guys are, and how much they deserve to be destroyed, beyond any shadow of doubt. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that it leaves a rather sick feeling in the stomach to watch a movie where the triumphant climax revolves around celebrating the destruction of a building by a terrorist (and body count be damned).
Yes, I realize it’s all in the book, but then again, the graphic novel doesn’t end on a triumphant note at all, but rather in chaos and turmoil. It ends with a question mark, with the reader left in a state of uncertainty as to whether or not the world that V has created with his bombs and assassinations is actually any better than the one that came before it. To its credit, the movie does try to include some ambiguity through the character of Evey, her relationship with V, and his eventual treatment of her. However, such ambiguity seems token at best, and any intrigue or ambiguity gets drowned out by the rest of the film, which is about as subtle as a Norsefire-tweaked news broadcast.
All that being said, the film is exceedingly stylish and certainly entertaining at times. James McTeigue, who previously worked with the Wachowskis as an assistant director on the Matrix films, handles himself well, and its obvious that his mentors’ eye for great visuals has rubbed off. And he’s helped by a round of solid performances, most notably Hugo Weaving, who plays V. What’s more impressive about Weaving’s performance is that we never see his face. His role depends solely on voice and body language, and Weaving pulls it off incredibly well. Indeed, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read the graphic novel now without hearing Weaving’s voice in my head.
I was also impressed at just how much the Wachowskis were able to cram into the movie from the graphic novel. V for Vendetta is a sprawling, labyrinthine work full of sideplots and minor characters. Obviously, much has been trimmed, and much of it wisely (though there is one particular subplot, which involves the wife of an officer killed by V, that is one of the most moving parts of the novel, and I was sad to see it go).
Many have commented that Alan Moore’s work is simply unfilmable, that it only works on paper due to the complexity he interjects into his work, but the Wachowskis have nonetheless done an admirable job. And in some places, they’ve actually improved on the original work. For example, V’s character is no longer quite so enigmatic and distant. Aspects of his relationship with Evey almost have a schoolboy crush-like feel to them, which Weaving plays off quite charmingly.
Which is why the final result is ultimately so disappointing. The need to make an obvious statement on the current state of affairs, the need to boil everything down to black and white, the need to make sure the viewer gets it no matter what the cost — all of these things actually serve to diminish what could have been a much more insightful and provocative movie. Sure, the Fox News crowd were probably having apoplectic seizures the moment they heard the movie’s premise, something I’m sure the movie’s supporters were quite proud of. But the rest of us will probably be left wanting more.
Walking out the theatre Saturday afternoon, I didn’t feel any outrage or excitement or desire to “take the power back.” I just felt tired and cold and sad. I’m sure that on another day, when I had a little more piss and vinegar in me, when the cynicism was firing on all cylinders, maybe the movie would resonate with me more. But I’m tired of being cynical and pissed off, even as I’m tired of having valid reasons to be cynical and pissed off, and the movie just couldn’t rouse that in me. What’s more, I found it’s final triumphant note to be hollow and, well, silly.
There’s another excellent scene in V for Vendetta where Evey wakes up in the Shadow Gallery and finds V crossing swords with a statue. Come to find out that V has been watching his favorite movie, The Count of Monte Cristo starring Robert Donat. He asks Evey if she’d like to watch it; she asks if it has a happy ending. V replies that it does, as only celluloid can deliver.
Which is a sentiment that feels quite appropriate when discussing V for Vendetta. The triumphant note on which V for Vendetta ends feels far too false, far too removed from reality despite all of its obvious and forced attempts to parallel the present (as other critics have pointed out, not once do we see the bloody results of V’s carnage, only the exhilarating fun of it). V for Vendetta certainly has a happy ending, but one that only celluloid can deliver, and one that leaves you with little real hope or satisfaction.