V FOR VENDETTA
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
AS THIS IS PART OF A YEAR-END DISCUSSION AS OPPOSED TO A TRADITIONAL REVIEW, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS PRESENT IN THE TEXT.
I've been a fan of the work of Alan Moore since the eighties (with Watchmen still standing as a personal favorite), but damn are his fans annoying. His work is generally considered two or three notches above the Bible in order of literary and spiritual importance, and there will probably never be a film adaptation that will satisfy the throngs of ardent Moore-heads. Fittingly, Moore himself often comes across as a grumpy bastard who would rather gripe about how his work is being butchered than to get involved in the process. (He was invited to participate in the creation of V for Vendetta numerous times). That said, one gets the sense that even if a filmmaker were to follow Moore's every whim (such as the marvelous collaboration between Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez for Sin City), the bearded recluse would still declare the final effort a travesty and run off into the British hills to drop more acid and brood.
Now that I've gotten that bit of nastiness off of my chest, allow me to say that this is undoubtedly the best film based on the writing of Alan Moore. Much attention has been paid to the screenplay, which was written by the creators of The Matrix: Andy and Larry (or Laurenca) Wachowski. Their fanboy credibility was a thing to reckon with until 2002, when they began releasing Matrix sequels that stunk like canned Civil War era flatulence. Astonishingly, they somehow avoided injecting sweaty rave scenes into V and focused on bringing a very dark, politically minded action/thriller to the screen. Matrix first A.D. James McTeigue was tapped to direct the film, and having an untested entity behind the camera was another element that left question marks in the minds of many.
McTeigue turned out to be quite talented, and lensed a heavily stylized production that brought Moore's dystopian British future to life. Agent Smith/Elrond actor Hugo Weaving imbues V (the sympathetic terrorist masked by the likeness of Guy Fawkes, a British icon who was thwarted in an attempt to blow up British parliament in 1605) with an ebullient humanity, despite the character's lifeless appearance. It's amazing how Weaving's voice can make V's static visage seem to evoke a variety of emotions even though it's always the same mischievous grin beaming at you. Despite her lack of British pedigree Natalie Portman is perfectly capable as Evey Hammond, and though they've changed her character slightly from the book, the universe failed to explode. A later scene in which she is interrogated and kept prisoner is a moment of true tour-de-force filmmaking, where her performance (aided by a haunting score by Dario Marianelli and the talented eye of McTeigue) helps the segment completely outshine its comic book source.
Amazingly, some of the changes actually improve upon the original story, especially with Evey's television station friend Gordon Deitrich (Steven Fry), whose character is much fuller in the film. Perhaps it owes more to applicability than to actual intention, but the Wachowski's script succeeds admirably in translating what was originally a diatribe against Thatcher's Britain of the 80s to the modern reign of Bush-fueled Tony Blair era paranoia. While it was included in the source material, the concept of homosexuals being criminalized is more potent than ever considering our current president essentially won a reelection through exploiting fears of a ubiquitous homo menace. (Some of the administration's ads featured feral wolves prowling the countryside, and although they were ostensibly representative of terrorism, they also easily applied to a fear of gay marriage infiltrating the heterosexual woods of Christian America.)
Roger Allam is prickly and wonderfully obnoxious as Lewis Prothero, a Bill O'Reilly-esque televised talking head who calls for a severance from America, which in the context of the film has devolved into a third world cesspool. John Hurt's angry glare fuels the despotic ruler Chancellor Adam Sutler, who represents a combination of Bush and Blair as much as the visual style of his administration recalls the look of Hitler's Third Reich. In the midst of all this heaviness shuffles Steven Rea's Inspector Finch, a good cop who looks like a beaten puppy but nonetheless begins piecing together the possibility that the current government just might have done a bad, bad thing. This also strikes home, in that it similarly addresses the concerns of 9/11 conspiracy theorists who opine that the Bush establishment had more to gain from that disaster than they had to lose, and that they staged it to give them the justification to go ahead with other plans. (For the record, I can't buy that Bush and cronies could effectively pull off such an amazingly complex task without bollixing it up, for if they could execute 9/11 with secrecy and pinpoint accuracy, why the hell is the war in Iraq such a freakin' quagmire?)
There is a bit of action in the film, but that isn't the crux of the story, it's the characters that bring the world of V to life. It's amazing that it works, because the filmmakers are essentially asking the viewer to empathize with an Osama Bin Laden type. Instead of mountainous caves, V holes up in a museum-like catacomb beneath London called the Shadow Gallery. Both V and TV star Deitrich share an affinity for collecting art, which in Ayn Rand-esque fashion is considered illegal. The script luckily manages to sidestep traditional Hollywood follies, as Evey and V do not have a heated love affair (there is love involved, but mainly her love for the idea of V, and not the scarred lump of flesh beneath cloak and wig), and V thankfully never takes his mask off (Judge Dredd, you are avenged!).
The explosive conclusion of the film also improves upon the original story, and footage of Britain's citizens (all clad in the same V-inspired cloak and mask) marching past armed forces to await the destruction of Parliament is goosebump-raising work. When V's final act of defiance unfurls, it becomes evident that this is an astonishing, inflammatory piece of art. We are truly lucky to be able to see films like this, since by the time the end credits begin rolling one should feel like it's time for a revolution of our own. I am truly awestruck that the label of 'popular entertainment' has allowed this explosive piece of vanguard cinema to sneak in under the radar and into the public consciousness.