Thumb suckers of the world unite, the most hotly anticipated film
of the, er, week, V for Vendetta, has arrived,
complete with manufactured buzz and some apparently genuine British
outrage. Concocted by the same team behind the Matrix
franchise, this future-shock story about a masked avenger at war
with a totalitarian British regime was drawn along the usual Orwellian
lines but is clearly meant to have more than a passing resemblance
to our current political environment.
Is the man in the mask who wants to make Parliament go boom Osama
bin Laden or Patrick Henry? Or just a Phantom of the Opera clone
who likes to kick back to the cult sounds of Antony and the Johnsons?
Your guess is as good as mine, and I've seen the film.
Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, V
for Vendetta originated as a limited comic series in the
early 1980's, just around the time that Margaret Thatcher was re-elected
for the second of three terms. Like the comic, the film is set in
a near future, though now the time stamp is circa 2020. America,
glimpsed only in passing on television, is paralyzed by civil unrest,
having unleashed worldwide havoc; Britain has fallen to fascism;
no word yet, though, on Luxembourg.
The usual totalitarian hard line prevails (no dissent, no diversity,
no fun) as does the usual movie-villain aesthetic. The shock troops
wear basic black with crimson accents, while the leader, played
by John Hurt in a goatee drizzled with spit, parts his hair like
The film, which follows Mr. Moore's story in broad outline, updating
it with dead-end allusions to Islam, was adapted to the screen by
Andy and Larry Wachowski and directed by one of their former assistant
directors, James McTeigue. (Notably, Mr. Moore is having nothing
to do with the film.)
One night after curfew, a young woman, Evey (Natalie Portman, looking
and sounding all of 12), is saved from an assault by a man in a
Guy Fawkes mask who introduces himself as V (Hugo Weaving, wasted
under his costume). V slices and dices Evey's troubles away, topping
off his handiwork first by reciting some vacuous verse and then
by blowing up the Old Bailey. She's perplexed, but like any impressionable
youngster with daddy issues and no money for therapy, she's also
interested. One thing leads to another and, V for voilà,
a minor league of extraordinary soul mates is born.
Mr. Moore's pretensions to seriousness may be seriously pretentious,
but he seeks to elevate the level of conversation that has been
inevitably lowered by the screen adaptations of his work. "V
for Vendetta" is the worst offender in this regard, largely
because the Wachowskis come equipped with their own fancy reading
list and set of narrative and ideological imperatives.
Not long after V rescues Evey, she returns the favor, only to end
up on the most-wanted list, chased by the police (meaning, for the
most part, Stephen Rea). Far from the prying eyes and ears of state
surveillance, V brings Evey back to his digs, a bachelor pad tricked
out with movie posters, books, a Francis Bacon painting and Julie
London pleading "Cry Me a River." All that's missing is
a shag carpet and Miss July.
Despite his kinky getup, V has other things on his mind than ravaging
his house guest — like watching the 1934 chestnut "The
Count of Monte Cristo" with Evey while curled up on the couch.
Mr. Moore's story owes much to the Dumas (père) novel about
a wrongly imprisoned commoner turned wealthy avenger, but it differs
significantly in how it puts vengeance and man over forgiveness
and God, and more or less jettisons the love angle. Unlike the Count,
V remains a lone avenging angel to the big-bang end, which does
help give this sluggish affair a much-needed resuscitating jolt.
Made mostly on sound stages and computers, with 3-D models doubling
for monuments, the film looks and sounds as canned as a Buck Rogers
serial, though this weighs in less like a conscious aesthetic strategy
than a function of poor technique.
Mr. McTeigue, who probably received some guidance from the Wachowskis
(they also served as producers), never manages to make this Goth
dystopia pop. Like the last two installments of the "Matrix"
cycle, this film sags when it should zip, weighted down with self-importance
and some dubious thinking.
The Wachowskis appear deeply enamored of the great (super) man
theory of history, with mysterioso leaders who are intent on delivering
the rest of us from false consciousness. Given this, it's no surprise
that the geopolitical terrain staked out in this film skews so last
century: globalization having been given the jackboot, partly, one
imagines, because multinational capitalism, with its total market
value and shareholder wealth, doesn't register as cool as all that
shiny, shiny leather and crypto-Nazi styling.
Then again, the idea that revolution can come from the ground up
doesn't jibe with the great director theory of film history, either.
One of the more interesting things about Mr. Moore's comic, along
with V's contradictions and cartoon dialectics ("anarchy wears
two faces," V intones), is how many different characters take
possession of the story at different times.
The screenplay, by contrast, essentially carves the plot into two
parallel narrative strands — V and Evey occupy one, the fascists
and their henchmen the other — that eventually twist together
as predictably as in any blockbuster blowout. Working in a medium
and at a scale that allows him to conceptualize outside the lines,
Mr. Moore wags his finger at the masses, blaming them for their
dire straits, but he also hands much of the story over to them.
Initially scheduled to be released in November 2005, to coincide
with Guy Fawkes Day, the film was delayed in the wake of the July
bombing attacks in London. Since then, inevitable questions and
objections have been raised about whether "V for Vendetta"
turns a terrorist into a hero, which is precisely what it does do.
Predictably, the filmmakers, actors and media savants have floated
the familiar formulation that one man's terrorist is another's freedom
fighter, as if this actually explained anything about how terror
and power (never mind movies) work.
© Manohla Dargis, New York Times