Set 20 years in the future, the flamboyant V for Vendetta is less science fiction than social commentary in comic book style, though this exhaustive movie is not easily described. With several odd-sized pieces, it is one strange puzzle—and an allegorical warning against tyranny.
With government control of people’s lives on the march, it’s easy to see what V for Vendetta is aiming for: a knock on the Weimar-era fascism spreading around us. A dictatorship based on faith—run by 1984‘s John Hurt in a goatee and an Adolf Hitler hair flip and powered by priests and thugs—is realistic, down to the consent of the passive masses, vacantly staring at their TV screens. It takes place in Britain.
One night, Natalie Portman’s ordinary citizen, Evey, dares to defy a government curfew when she steps into the London darkness and suddenly finds herself surrounded by gang rapists. That they turn out to be policemen is the fitting intro to totalitarian Britain of the not too distant future. How statism happened is one of the movie’s mysteries—a warning more than a conspiracy theory—and this brings us to the V for vendetta.
A nom de guerre for the tragic hero who wears a mask of a 17th century Catholic who sought to blow up Parliament, V is an entirely mad, romantic figure prone to alliterative speeches, citations of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and repeat viewings of The Count of Monte Cristo.
V is branded a terrorist by the state because he seeks to awaken a revolution among the sleeping masses, setting the date Nov. 5 as Independence Day. He begins by swooping down upon young Evey (Portman) in her hour of distress at the hands of those three state-sponsored brutes. Handy with a blade or two, V puts them in their place.
There’s more to curly-maned, svelte Evey than meets the eye—and to everyone else for that matter, including an inspector (Stephen Rea, The Crying Game) and a bunch of bureaucrats whose role in creating the faith-and-force regime sparks V’s vengeance. With an eye for theatricality, a dry, throaty British accent and a passion to crush the regime and exact revenge—V enlists Evey, not entirely of her own free will, and sets out to destroy the tyrannical government.
This means strapping on a bomb to gain access to the state-run broadcast center so V can air a disc calling for nationwide revolt. By creating the illusion of invincibility, he earns the people’s confidence (and none of this can reasonably be compared to today’s Islamic fascists, who attack free states, not enslaved ones, and terrorism as a tactic is not exactly endorsed).
With operatic explosions, melodrama, corny dialog, slow-motion blood spurts—and a disappointing climax that cloaks the madman’s sword skills instead of indulging his devotion to Alexander Dumas—the whole thing is frightfully over the top.
It is also tender, hilarious and ironic and, occasionally, thought-provoking. The best aspect of the story—which, despite the chaos, is structurally sound—involves the notion that evil triumphs when the good consents.
V for Vendetta is dystopian, so it doesn’t stand for anything, except maybe good will toward man, and it is strengthened by first-time director James McTiegue, who nets sincere performances that improve an otherwise overwrought Wachowski brothers (The Matrix trilogy) script.
Making Moulin Rouge! look practically sedate by comparison, the freedom fighting incorporates flashbacks to frolicking lesbians, Evey’s childhood secrets and John Hurt drawing on his Contact eccentricity and spinning it into a perfectly believable dictator—who might have started his treacherous clawing as the local water commissioner, town council gadfly, or a clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
There is more: a concentration camp for undesirables, Tchaikovsky blaring to orgiastic violence, and the movie benefits greatly from strong performances from Rea as the inspector, Stephen Fry (Oscar Wilde in Wilde) as a television propagandist who mistakes Benny Hill for rebellion and Tim Pigott-Smith as Britain’s chief heel-clicker.
The society is not entirely plausible—even 20 years of totalitarianism would preclude such technological advances as are evident here—but one may regard them as leftovers from a more productive, capitalistic era. London is ruled by cretins who throw black bags over people’s heads if they are suspected of free thought, speech, travel, association, religion, sex—any sign of exercising individual rights.
Bordering on absurd, and with an obvious nod to Phantom of the Opera, this is one wild ride not likely to be forgotten.
The two-disc edition of V for Vendetta features Freedom! Forever!: Making of V for Vendetta, a 16-minute sampling of cast and crew interviews—including Portman and director McTiegue—in which most everyone agrees that the movie is primarily anti-fascism. It follows the motion picture from its origins as a comic book (they call it a graphic novel) through production. As usual, it moves too fast.
The movie is suited to DVD, with the orchestral score booming in sync with vibrant fireworks in the spectacular grand finale. Actor Hugo Weaving, bringing voice to the troubled title character, makes an indelible impression in the potentially disastrous part—conveying pathos. V for Vendetta‘s heightened sense of reality remains a potent visualization of tyrannical government and it depicts one of the screen’s most stylized rebellions.
The look and mood suggest a noble crusade, such as America’s revolutionary patriots against the British and the French resistance to the Nazis, as one crew member observes in the extras, and it causes one to think about the proper function of government. Disc two features forgettable bits on design and comics—the original British comics did away with thought balloons—but the extra to watch is Remember, Remember: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, a short which provides an interesting (if severely compressed) history of the Catholic terrorist’s plot to blow up Britain’s Parliament. According to speakers here, the scheme somehow—like much of history—rises above its actual events to represent man’s struggle against statism.