Although drawn from a 2-D source, "V for Vendetta" offers plentiful depth in its view of an Orwellian world where violence is a political tool.
March 16, 2006
England 2020 is not so far from what "1984" predicted. The fascist tendencies that simmered through British political culture before World War II have resurfaced, and the public is controlled through police repression, surveillance and propaganda. High Chancellor Sutler (played by John Hurt) is a despot who rants from giant video monitors. Free thought is disloyalty. Homosexuality or owning a Koran — unauthorized love and unauthorized faith — are capital crimes.
Where the masterful "V for Vendetta" breaks with Orwell is in its insistence that even under tyrants, heroism is possible. The Wachowski brothers (creators of the "Matrix" trilogy") have adapted Alan Moore's Thatcher-era graphic novel and updated it to pound every hot-button political issue of the post 9/11 era, from Abu Ghraib to London Underground bombings to weapons of mass destruction.
This rousing anthem to defiance — political, personal and philosophical — also defies a longstanding rule of comic-book movies. Action blockbusters usually value artful explosions more than incendiary ideas. The gripping, intelligent and innovative "V" overturns that tradition. It refuses to be a trivial thrill ride.
Its caped avenger, known as V, aims not just to bring down a handful of arch villains, but to change society. His grotesque mask, modeled on Guy Fawkes, England's most famous revolutionary, isn't a disguise to preserve his anonymity, but a symbol to proclaim his rebellion; his conversation is dense with analysis and ideology; his fortress of solitude isn't a museum of weaponry, but a vast library and art gallery. He is a fearsome hand-to-hand fighter, but that's logical. In a world governed by violence, violence may be the best tool to dissect it.
"People shouldn't be afraid of their governments," says the knife-wielding antihero. "Governments should be afraid of their people."
At the center of the story is Evey (Natalie Portman), a young Everywoman who works as a lackey at a TV network featuring jingoistic superhero series and raving demagogues. When she's menaced by the secret police for violating curfew, the masked revolutionary V (Hugo Weaving) rescues her. The police (led by Stephen Rea) suspect she is his accomplice, and V takes her into his sanctum for her own protection. There are parallels to "The Phantom of the Opera" in their relationship, as the cultured, protective V tutors Evey, but something darker is at work, as well. Although his manners are courtly, Evey is his prisoner, and he is not above using deceit and torture to bend her to his will.
V and Sutler are mirror-image father figures in a battle for Evey's soul, alike even in their goatees and stark red-and-black insignias. V is a terrorist, but is a government that controls its people through fear morally superior? Wasn't the Boston Tea Party terrorism in service of liberty? When do we call terrorism heroism? Tackling such ambiguities is what will keep audiences arguing about "V for Vendetta" while most Saturday-night popcorn movies evaporate before we reach the exits.
Director James McTeigue, a cameraman on the "Matrix" films and "Star Wars: Episode II," adroitly visualizes the multilayered story. His touch can be understated or electrifying, as the moment demands. He subtly notes how the homes of average citizens are stripped of all cultural artifacts except a flat-screen TV and a portrait of Sutler, yet he stages the film's action set-pieces with the flamboyance of a satirical cabaret act.
His actors are deft. Portman is wrenching as the victimized Evey, well-matched by the masked Weaving, who crafts a terrific performance from body language and vocal inflections. "V for Vendetta" is likely to be the most profound and important film of the year.
***½ out of four stars
The setup: In an England of the Orwellian future, a masked vigilante known only as V fights a guerrilla war against the government.
What works: A deeply layered screenplay that will spark discussion for years to come.
What doesn't: Viewers expecting a nonstop thrill ride may find the film overly talky.
Great line: "Beneath this mask there is more than flesh; beneath this mask there is an idea."
Rating: R for violence, some language.