It’s been said that Guy Fawkes was the only person who ever entered the Houses of Parliament with honest intentions. He honestly meant to blow the place to smithereens, and though he was foiled in his attempt, at least his motives were easy to understand. He and his co-conspirators were striking out against the Protestant monarchy of James I, in the hopes of replacing him with an individual more sympathetic to Roman Catholics. The titular hero of V for Vendetta has a similar plan, but his intentions are darkened by involved self-interest.
Maybe it’s just that I don’t particularly care for antiheroes. The Catcher in the Rye held no special fascination for me, and I’ve never been one to root for the knife-wielding maniac in a slasher movie, no matter how seemingly justified the reasons for his or her spree happen to be. In this instance however, it’s not that the antihero hold no sway over me, it’s that V never compelled me to care about him. In their interest in moving the story along at a brisk clip, the writers forgot to add anything that would make the audience hope for his success. The movie itself is compelling, but only if you toss aside V and focus on Evey and the supporting characters in the story. What’s left is a scathing look at a government that’s out of control, and although this movie is set in an alternate reality, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was watching our own not-too-distant future.
The movie is told from the viewpoint of Evey, a young woman who gets drawn into V’s plot after he rescues her from a group of government-sanction thugs. After rescuing her, V takes her up to the rooftops of London, where she watches as V blows up the Old Bailey in a roar of classical music and fireworks. He releases her, but they meet again when V breaks into the television station where she works and hijacks a news program in order to present England with his manifesto: something is wrong with the system, and in exactly one year he’s going to blow up Parliament in the hopes of stirring up a revolution. Evey gets a chance to repay V’s kindness to her when she maces a police officer and prevents V’s capture. Since Evey was knocked unconscious by the policeman just before she successfully distracts him, V takes pity on her and brings her to his underground “lair”, which is filled with artwork and books that the current government deemed objectionable.
Evey is told by V that she must stay in these quarters until his plan is carried out — one year from now. She decides to offer her help in the hopes of finding a way to escape, but things go from bad to worse when she’s captured and tortured for information about V. Meanwhile, two police officers search for V and find that there’s more to his story than a simple overthrow of the government. They also uncover horrible truths about the current government and just how far the Grand Chancellor was willing to go to cement his hold on the nation. During all this, people of England slowly start to rebel, waking up from their fear and apathy. All eyes are on Parliament as the fifth of November draws near, and everyone waits to see if the latter-day Guy Fawkes will be able to carry out what the original could not.
Natalie Portman (The Professional, Star Wars) does an amazing job as Evey. V and Evey have a strange Phantom/Christine connection; towards the end of the movie I expected her to lift his mask for a Lon Chaney-esque “aha!” moment. When Evey is brought into custody, she’s full of shock, outrage, helplessness and fear. It’s almost difficult to watch, her pain is that palpable.
In contrast, as V, Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings) is given the unenviable task of performing under the cover of a Guy Fawkes mask for the entirety of the film. This may have worked well in the graphic novel, since the action moves along through frame-by-frame illustrations. But there’s a loss of emotional connection when a character wearing a total face mask is shown onscreen, and try as he might, Hugo isn’t able to get past the hard shell of Guy Fawkes. There’s a reason the musical version of The Phantom of the Opera has the main character in a mask that covers only two-thirds of his face; a grimace, a smile or a sparkle in the eye all provide a glimpse into the character’s soul. A frozen, unmoving facade with slitted openings for the eyes, nose and mouth is harder to get close to, and you have to take V’s words and actions at, well, at face value. If there’s any conflict in this character, any hidden pain, there’s no way of knowing from any facial clues. And the screenplay doesn’t bother to flesh anything out.
The reason for V’s actions aren’t completely clear until about halfway into the film, and by that time I had lost interest in his motivation. Since the character’s plans aren’t entirely selfless (the “vendetta” in the title), there are times when the character comes off as vindictive, self-righteous or just plain demented. Don’t get me wrong, his justifications end up being completely understandable, but by the time they were spelled out I had already developed a firm lack of interest. Yay hurray, demolish the totalitarian regime. But I don’t really care about you personally. Not to hate.
Stephen Fry stands out as Deitrich, a co-worker and friend of Evey’s who has reasons of his own for hating the system. John Hurt as the Grand Chancellor Adam Sutler is terrifying in his determination to have England conform to his personal rules by any means necessary. And Natasha Wightman almost steals the movie as Valerie, a former prisoner of the government’s concentration camps. Her final message to the next unfortunate occupant of her cell, which Evey discovers hidden in a small hole in the cement wall, is a heartbreaking look at what happened when their government began to determine who was desirable and who wasn’t.
The cinematography is crystal-clear, giving the feeling that the director doesn’t want you to miss anything that’s happening on screen. The movie is violent in parts, but the violence is balletic, a dance of blood and weapons. Brutality takes a side step to allow an almost poetic grace to these scenes. The soundtrack pulls in an eclectic group of music, from the 1812 Overture to The Rolling Stones. The wide selection of musical genres works well, lending realism to the film’s alternate future.
The costuming and art direction lend an ominous, fascist tone to some scenes, with jack-booted soldiers and black flags slashed in red. The scenery is frightening in its sparse depiction of a dystopian future filled with concrete cells and huge TV screens that provide propaganda — all the while maintaining an eye on the populace — 24/7. Special effects are few and far between, but scarily effective. However, in a post-9/11 world, images of important landmarks being blown up made me uncomfortable, not elated. Living in Washington, DC when the planes crashed, I remember all too clearly the devastation of those acts, and I just couldn’t drum up the excitement I’m sure the producers were hoping for. That could be because I don’t have the background that someone who read the graphic novel would have. Then again, I’m a huge fan of Dune, yet when I saw the first film adaptation, it seemed hollow even though I had the novel firmly set in my mind as background information.
The parallels to current events aren’t just hinted at, they’re taken out and slapped onto the table. It’s said that the novel this film is based on was a harsh criticism of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party. It’s a sad commentary that even though it was written about 20 years ago, those fears are just as fresh today. The message that the people must shake off apathy and become a voice for positive change is a powerful one. This movie could spark a lot of post-multiplex conversation. Here’s hoping it does.
(Warner Brothers, 2006)