V for Vendetta

(2006) *** R
132 min. Warner Brothers. Director: James McTeigue. Cast: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, John Hurt, Stephen Fry.

V for Vendetta—adapted from the graphic novel devised by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd—plays a bit like 1984 performed in the Grand Guignol style. Moore's futuristic dystopia of Great Britain gets a makeover from producer-screenwriters the Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix trilogy), but the essence is the same: a fascist theocracy lashing out at its citizens in the smug satisfaction that no one could challenge its authority and live to tell the tale.

Moore's original social critique emerged from the Thatcher era in England, and though the story remains planted in a totalitarian London after the fall of the American empire, V for Vendetta's trappings have been not-so-subtly tweaked to reflect the darker side of the current American administration: torture in secret facilities, government-bought media, self-sanctioned wire-tapping, church in bed with state, regulation of the genitalia, suppression of free speech, and the inadvertant hugely successful motivation of passionate terrorists through rapacious (inter)national policy. (A swastika-enhanced poster for "The Coalition of the Willing," however, is a cheap shot.)

Consequently, a divided domestic electorate will take V for Vendetta either as a kick-ass, future-punk primal scream of political frustration or as an irresponsible, literally and figuratively incendiary attack on our democracy when our approval-deficient leaders can least afford it. The rest of the world is considerably less likely to be ambivalent about a revenge fantasy of an individual rousing the rabble against the institutional elite.

Lloyd and Moore—who has disowned all movies based on his work, this one included—claimed the visage of 17th Century rebel Guy Fawkes as their central image, and first-time director James McTeigue (first assistant director on The Matrix films and Star Wars: Episode II) includes a bite-sized recreation of the Gunpowder Plot to fill in the ignorant. As in the graphic novel, an avenging angel known only as "V" (voice by Hugo Weaving; body by several) wears a Fawkes mask as he carries out his seditious serial murders. One night after curfew, "V" saves a TV production assistant named Evey (Natalie Portman) from the attempted rape of a pack of government goons. V's rescue—like all of his personal attacks—comes in the spectacular form of whip-crack blows and flamboyant slashes delivered with a shiny blade and a velvet-tongued speech. You're forgiven if you perceive something absolutely fabulous about the effete V (queer eye for the hate guy?).

Involved and intrigued, Evey might have been on the hook even if V didn't kidnap her and spirit her to his underground lair. There's a Phantom of the Opera vibe to her emotionally ambiguous relationship with the urbane but lonely outcast (flirting with further complication, the Wachowskis tease the graphic novel's intimation that V could be Evey's presumed-dead father). Though the character's prostitute roots get whitewashed, Portman makes the most of an unusually juicy role. The audience surrogate, Evey gets caught up in a war she'd rather fearfully sit out on the sidelines, and the personal consequences are rarely pretty.

In a subplot not in the Moore novel, a closeted television presenter played by Stephen Fry hoards artifacts reclaimed from the Department of Objectionable Materials. The most prized objet d'art is his copy of the Koran (in a rich irony, perhaps only hysterical censorship could drive a rebellious homosexual, citing poetic lyricism, to embrace an oft-intolerant religious text). In a bit of inspired casting, John Hurt (Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four) plays autocrat Alan Sutler, who bellows, "I want this country to realize that we stand on the edge of oblivion. I want everyone to remember why they need us!" Meanwhile, Stephen Rea brilliantly fleshes out troubled but underwritten government agent Finch.

Despite the heavy handed allegory, V for Vendetta is artful enough in execution (literally) to justify its provocations. Evey asks V, "Are you like a crazy person?" The answer is "yes." True, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, but a nut is a nut. V is a product of institutional abuse, his motivation personal revenge rather than a desire to salvage society. Warped beyond salvation, the superficially genteel killer sees his fierce terrorist assaults as performance art, explosive symphonies with Tchaikovsky score and allusions to Shakespeare and Dumas. The terrible displays are in the eye of the beholders, since the grandeur of the climax is cut with the bitter failure to craft a sane response to fascism: a crowd of acolytes turned anonymous by Guy Fawkes masks puts mob mentality to work.

V for Vendetta is, then, at least as cynical as counter-culture cult film Fight Club, if not more so, about the ability of populations to organize sanely. McTeigue compensates for this depressive bent by giving the film a properly unsettling rhythm and visual punch (the film is dedicated to cinematographer Adrian Biddle, who died in late 2005). Rebirths come in water and in fire: the story believes in a capacity for change, and though the maniacal V does not afford the same opportunity to his victims, Evey and Finch demonstrate social evolution.

In the rush to brand V for Vendetta irresponsible, wags would do well to note the heritage of dystopian fiction as cautionary tales. No one wants to live in this futuristic world, but that we recognize so much of ourselves in it should start discussions, not end them. As one character puts it, "Our integrity sells for so little, but it is all we have." The timely V for Vendetta is a commercial product, to be sure, but it qualifies as daring entertainment.

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