March 16, 2006
Chaos, in the letter V
V For Vendetta
Starring Hugo Weaving, Natalie Portman, Stephen Rea, John Hurt and Stephen Fry. Directed by James McTeigue. 132 minutes. At major theatres. 14A
As V for Vendetta closes to the strident tone of Mick Jagger singing "Street Fighting Man," the thought occurs that the Wachowski Brothers might be mocking their audience as much as inciting it.
In making their first film foray outside the hermetic world of The Matrix trilogy, the Wachowskis have chosen a story about a hero terrorist that is fraught with controversy and ripe for misunderstanding. "Blowing up a building can change the world," is a dialogue line as loaded as any suicide satchel, already drawing editorial thunder.
But the Wachowskis' biggest folly is their lack of focus. Their inability to toss out bad ideas or to trim a wayward screenplay — the fatal flaws of the hugely disappointing Matrix sequels — once again robs them of greatness, turning a potentially potent vision of post-9/11 hypocrisy into a fitfully entertaining pinball game.
V for Vendetta, opening tonight at Toronto theatres, is based on cult author Alan Moore's dystopian graphic novel of the 1980s that foresaw a fascist state in Britain, hostile to homosexuals and non-conformists, and ruled by a government very much like Margaret Thatcher's.
A potentially potent vision is turned into a fitfully entertaining pinball game
The Wachowskis have retained major elements of Moore's original story — which makes his vocal opposition to the project seem both baseless and self-serving — but they've shifted events to a future year, sometime about 2025.
The "former United States" is no longer a superpower, having succumbed to civil war and disease. The United Kingdom has fared marginally better, having lost 100,000 citizens to a deadly plague but still managing to maintain a semblance of order. In the process it has become a virtual armed camp of somnambulant citizens, ruled by an Orwellian despot (John Hurt) and his Gestapo-like police force, the Fingermen.
Into this depressing scenario swings V (Hugo Weaving), a multi-motivated figure in a Guy Fawkes face mask and black suicide-bomber garb, who has seen The Phantom of the Opera a few times too many. He aims to wake up "sleepy London town" by blowing up symbols of authority like the Old Bailey and the Houses of Parliament (now abandoned), finishing the job original rebel Fawkes failed to do in 1605.
V's coming-out party begins, as so often happens in comic- book sagas, with the rescue of a damsel in distress from street thugs. The damsel Evey (Natalie Portman) is both chuffed by V's chivalry and annoyed by his excessive alliteration: his use of words beginning with "V" makes him sound like a deranged Sesame Street character. (Virtuously, V soon vanquishes this vexation.)
Having turned the directorial reigns over to their Matrix protégé James McTeigue, the Wachowskis proceed at funereal pace with a screenplay stuffed with subplots and secondary characters. V's plan to shock and awe the sheep-like masses into taking up arms against injustice is going to take a year to put in place (it only feels longer), since he wants to time it for next year's Guy Fawkes celebrations on Nov. 5.
Is V really a Canadian bureaucrat in disguise? No, he's a disgruntled citizen and frustrated Shakespearian, a bad actor played by a good one: Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith of The Matrix). Not since James Earl Jones proclaimed intergalactic doom from behind Darth Vader's respirator has an actor made a Halloween mask seem so lifelike.
Weaving is the anchor that keeps V for Vendetta from completely drifting off into Looney Tunes territory, no easy task in a movie that expects us to blink past as many plot holes and incongruities as this one does. It can't even seem to decide whether nuclear war, bird flu or some diabolical neo-Nazi concoction is to blame for the social unrest.
Weaving's superhuman efforts are amply assisted. Standouts amongst the co-stars include Hurt's Big Brother figure (remember him as anti-fascist Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four?), Portman's elusive Evey, Stephen Rea's conflicted gumshoe Finch and Stephen Fry's sneaky TV jester, Deitrich.
They're better than the movie deserves. Lost in the pointless pyromania and vapid verbosity is the germ of a truly subversive thought, the one that says everyone is a terrorist until they become the government. It has been that way throughout history, the American and French revolutions being obvious examples. But this is not the movie, and these are not the times, for sophisticated arguments.