The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, November 04, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - V for Vendetta

Originally published 3/29/06
Full review behind the jump

V For Vendetta

: James McTeigue
: The Wachowski Brothers, based on the DC/Vertigo graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd
: Joel Silver, Grant Hill, Larry Wachowski, Andy Wachowski
: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, Tim Piggott-Smith, Rupert Graves, Roger Allam

There is a flamboyance to the graphic novel, even (and some of you will think me silly to use this word) a sense of romance, that doesn’t always translate. I’m not talking about kissy romance or adventure romance, both of which have been delivered repeatedly and to great satisfaction by the movies over the decades. I’m thinking of a romance that’s more about dreaming up another world – a world where a man in tights and a cape could appear on the scene, say he’s here to help, and be accepted. That’s what I’m trying to get at.

And it’s that sense of romance the filmmakers are trying to capture in
V for Vendetta, an adaptation of an acclaimed and provocative miniseries from the early 1980’s written by Alan Moore (who also wrote the originals of From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and is making a habit out of disavowing these movie adaptations). In attempting to honor its source it’s less action-packed than you might anticipate, and daring enough to create a protagonist who is part Musketeer, part Phantom of the Opera, part ham, part ninja, and at least half-mad, and invest in him the idea of real revolution. Not a generic happy-go-lucky tossing off of shackles followed by cheering throngs; but the grim, bloody and terrifying mass trauma that revolution really is.

The result is a collision of ideas and style that is never less than captivating but not quite as transcendent as necessary. There are frequent moments where the filmmakers’ ambition pays off, just as there are moments where their limitations are too painfully on display. But perhaps what is most notable is that we have a film produced by Studio Hollywood, in a genre usually reserved for teenagers, that is unapologetically rabble-rousing.

You might conclude that the Wachowski brothers, writer/directors of the Matrix trilogy, and here delivering the screenplay to their former assistant director James McTeigue, are taking very specific aim at contemporary circumstances. Given that they’ve been trying bring this product of the 80’s to the screen since the mid-90’s, that’s crediting them with prognosticative powers I’m not ready to grant. I think, giving them the benefit of the doubt, that what they’re striving for is what J.R.R. Tolkein defined as “not allegory, but applicability”.

They are trying, as Moore did, to create a coherent and compelling nightmare future in which fascism has taken root in a society that was once free but traded it away one inch at a time for the promise of security; and now, as Ben Franklin predicted, has neither. I have not the space nor interest to turn this review into a commentary on how that might or might not be applicable to our lives today, so I will continue to simply critique the movie and I think we can all live with that.

The place is Britain, some twenty years after “terrorists” unleashed an artificial plague which killed tens of thousands. The people turned to their televisions, to their Churches, and to a dynamic leader who promised to protect them. This man, the Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt, with enough inner fury to fill out his larger-than-life role), has ruled without check or question ever since, and calibrates the fear and obedience of his people with propaganda by day and curfews by night.

And so we see not only the cultish extravagance of a dictatorship, with its symbols and angry rallies, but also its evil banality, where rooms full of plain black binders hint at the people who have been stuffed in black bags and “disappeared” for saying the wrong thing, or living their life in the wrong way (virulent hatred of homosexuals is encouraged), or for resisting the authority of the “Fingermen”: empowered bullies who prowl the streets looking to take advantage of their position.

They try to assault Evey (Natalie Portman), a young gofer at the television station who has snuck out past curfew for a dinner date. This is one of those scenes where the Wachowki’s pseudo-hard-boiled dialogue is at its most clangingly-inappropriate level – inevitably when their characters want to sound tough, they resort to grade school sexual puns that tumble awkwardly off the tongue. So it’s not just for the sake of Evey’s safety that we’re relieved to see the scene broken up by V (Hugo Weaving).

V is the amalgam revolutionary mentioned above – his face is always hidden behind a white mask designed to resemble Guy Fawkes (who, hundreds of years ago, was foiled in an attempt to blow up Parliament in an event known as The Gunpowder Plot). Weaving’s challenge is to invest V with a soul using only body language and his agile voice, and he generally succeeds. He speaks in floral torrents, Shakespeare and platitudes, heightened discourse with burning rage underneath. He is not to be admired so much as steered clear of, because he has a most grandiose plan to upset the order of things; which includes bombings, assassinations and general incitement to riot. While things may turn out better for England when he’s done, your personal safety is far from guaranteed.

Circumstances conspire to bring he and Evey together, and he shows her a few things about the alternative to living in perpetual fear (her parents were stuffed in black bags when she was a child). She, in turn, reminds him that, in spite of the wrongs inflicted on him, which include the reason why he lives behind that mask, there is more to life than just the violent settling of accounts.

And as V’s legend grows among the populace with each killing, a high-level party member named Finch (Stephen Rea) conducts a thorough investigation that causes him more restlessness and doubt about the people he works for the more he learns. I appreciated every second that Rea and his hangdog face were on screen – he is, as these things are reckoned, the closest thing to a real hero in the movie, if you consider his motives and the choices he is empowered to make along the course of the plot.

You’ll see that I talk little about fight scenes. Although V has a fondness for blades and considerable skill, he works in short, directed bursts. On some level he is aware that revolution is not a one-man operation, and that the reason he is succeeding is that historical forces have reached a tipping point where someone like himself can finally play an instigating role. And that is what he has prepared for. It’s to the movie’s benefit not just thematically, but because McTeigue shows a distinctive lack of visual flair or imagination. Scene after scene is composed with the most rudimentary camera work, and fight scenes are constantly on the brink of incoherence.

I’m not advocating that the Wachowski’s perspective-skewing directorial tricksiness would have been any more useful, but at least they would have been at home with the scope. V for Vendetta, reflecting the spirit of its source material, tells a large story with many little stories that unfold along the way. Some of them, like the tragedy of the actress Valerie (Natasha Wightman), humanize the almost unfathomable heartbreak this kind of society can wreak. That’s when this thing works, when it takes an uncluttered look at this strange other world that in its surface detail is flamboyant, romantic “comic-book stuff”, but is somehow just familiar enough to distress.


  • watched V for Vendetta recently, eye-candy effects, amazing how much character they developed into a mask, idealogical to boot, loved it.

    By Anonymous patrick, at 11:18 AM  

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