By Lady Liberty
web posted March 20, 2006
V for Very Good
V for Vendetta
*** 1/2 out of **** stars
I've read early reviews of V for Vendetta with some interest and not a little trepidation. In general terms, the movie critics have appreciated the film (such luminary critics as Roger Ebert, Rolling Stone, and USA Today have given the movie 3 or 3 and a half stars out of 4; others, such as the Village Voice — which calls the film "supremely tasteless" — haven't been so kind; some have even called the movie propaganda in and of itself, and which "blurs the line between freedom fighter and terrorist"). Although I understand the viewpoint of the latter critics, as far as the movie — and its thought-provoking subject matter — goes, I'm solidly on the side of the former.
V for Vendetta takes place in the near future (2020) in London, England. After disengaging itself from a "war America started," terror attacks — including an horrific biological attack that killed thousands — have resulted in a totalitarian government there. Using tools ranging from strictly enforced curfews to surveillance cameras, and from "disappearing" political activists to government-controlled news outlets, Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) is firmly in control. That control is exercised, of course, for the security and good of England's citizens.
A man known only as V (Hugo Weaving) disagrees. His stance against the Chancellor's government is two-fold: he hates what the government has done to him personally, and he loves freedom. In a series of violent attacks he personally orchestrates, he sets out to prove his point to the largely oblivious population. Through no real fault of her own, a young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) meets the mysterious masked V in a dark alley where V saves her virtue from a trio of government-appointed citizen informers (aptly called "fingermen").
Before Evey goes home, V invites her to see something. Standing beside him on a rooftop, Evey listens as speakers on the streets suddenly begin to boom with the strains of the 1812 Overture. Then, as London's citizens awaken and peer out their windows to see what's happening, the nearby Bailey (courthouse) explodes in a cloud of fire and spectacular fireworks. Evey is understandably terrified by V and his actions, but her fears of V don't outweigh her fears of the government so she tells no one about what she's seen when she returns to work the next day.
Employed by a government television station, Evey doesn't occupy a place of authority but is positioned quite well enough to know that the news anchors often must relay stories that they personally know to be untrue. That knowledge is only further cemented when the newscasters try to pretend that the explosions the night before were the result of a planned demolition. It's also more than enough to make her fear that a visit from the state police could be targeting her. In reality, however, it's not her the police are after. It's V himself.
V is at the television station this November 5 to claim responsibility for the bombing of the Bailey as well as to challenge the people of London to join him on the following November 5 — Guy Fawkes Day — to destroy Parliament itself. V only narrowly escapes the police who are there to arrest him, and again by accident, Evey gets involved. V tells Evey much, including more about the fate of her own dead parents. But she's still torn between the world she's always known and her fears, and the world that might be if only she can overcome those same fears. As a result, she's also conflicted as to whether V is good or evil, and whether she should work to stop him — or to do all she can to help.
Meanwhile, the ongoing machinations of the Chancellor and his minions, including the apparent head of an intelligence unit, Mr. Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith) and a police inspector, Finch (Stephen Rea) serve to show just how far a tyrant will go to hold on to power. But when the anguish of Evey's friend, Dietrich (Stephen Fry) and a woman she'll never meet (Valerie, played by Natasha Wightman) offer a heart-rending counterpoint from the other side, Evey isn't the only one whose loyalties and motivations are conflicted!
Natalie Portman proved she can really act in her superlative turn in 2004's Closer. She stays at that level here, with her speechless terror while the authorities shave her head eloquent far beyond words, and her quiet courage evident even as she acknowledges her own great fears. Hugo Weaving's face is never seen, but his voice alone is terrifying, poignant, and powerful by turns. Some well choreographed body language merely adds to the effect of a man whose expressions are invisible, but whose emotions are always clear. The supporting cast is also very good, particularly Stephen Fry who offers up a wonderful rendering of a publicly resigned man who slowly lets his own disillusionment grow into some brave action of his own.
Though much touted as being a movie from the same men who brought us the brilliant Matrix series, in reality the Wachowski brothers are responsible for the screenplay alone (they're also credited as producers). Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore (who doesn't like the movie and has publicly disavowed it), the Wachowski brothers actually worked on V for Vendetta before they set it aside to do The Matrix. Director James McTeigue is instead behind the cameras here, and he ably brings a complicated story to life (his experience as an assistant director on such "little" projects as the three Matrix movies and Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones may have been helpful).
The sets are spectacular and the effects even more so. But I maintain that it's the story itself that makes V for Vendetta as impressive as it is (whatever Alan Moore may personally think — I've not read the original, so I can't comment on whether or not I agree with his opinion). I really enjoyed my movie-going experience simply from the standpoint of suspense and entertainment; but what really got to me was the view of the near future and its horrifying plausibility. Though I had a hard time divorcing the two points for myself, I can tell you that my friend's 17 year-old son and a buddy saw V for Vendetta this weekend as well, and neither has shut up about it since. They don't care anything about politics, and yet they both loved it. So did I.
POLITICAL NOTES: There is literally no moment of this film that doesn't have a political impact. From the moral judgments of a government formed on a religious conservative basis to the methods of its tight control over its population, there's plenty to think about and certainly more than a little implication to our own present-day circumstances to ponder.
In the movie, political activists are watched and sometimes punished; in America today, we know that, at a minimum, many are surveilled. On screen, we see the "for your own good" and "for your safety" extolled by government officials; today, more than a few laws, including the freedom-stealing PATRIOT Act, are based on those very notions — and are largely supported by the public as a result. In the film, "fingermen" are everywhere to report on the activities of their fellows; on more than one occasion, we've been encouraged to do the same, up to and including the infamous TIPS program and even a law that would make us criminals if we didn't report known drug use.
There are frankly many, many more parallels to name, and most of them are at least as awful as the few listed above. V for Vendetta takes place in the near future, and it's all but impossible to watch the movie, as enjoyable as it is, without wondering just how "near" that future really is. Perhaps an early warning can help us avoid the nasty fate — as well as the very violent ultimate release from that fate — depicted in the movie. And while V for Vendetta is certainly not a movie to be taken literally, there's some very real and legitimate early warning here that I personally believe should be heeded.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: V for Vendetta is rated R for "strong violence, [and] some language." This is not a movie suitable for young children either in its overall topic or its rendering. From its opening scenes of the execution of Guy Fawkes in 1605 to the penultimate (beautifully choreographed, I might add) fight, the blood and guts are fairly graphic. In addition, everything from Shakespeare to classic movies are quoted or somehow otherwise involved, and the politics is sometimes complicated in and of itself. This is not a film for the faint of heart or those unable to understand such vocabulary or ideals. But for the rest, whether they consider V a terrorist or a freedom fighter in the end, there's so much of thought-provoking value here that I'm inclined to consider V for Vendetta required viewing.