Remember remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why the gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot…
-poem taught to British schoolchildren to help them remember their history
By way of introduction, those of you expecting a full-out action film better readjust your expectations. While not as demanding of your synapses and gray matter as say, Syriana, James McTeigue‘s V For Vendetta contains equal measures of political thriller and crime drama along with its action sequences and the political, moral and social issues raised in the film are ideas with which everyone on this planet should concern themselves.
By the way, it’s outstanding.
The (anti) hero of this piece, V (Hugo Weaving) is a violent, vindictive, unforgiving assassin bent on revenge for a wrong done him (and possibly many others) in years past. He will stop at almost nothing to accomplish his goals, personal and national in scope, and is the epitome of “the ends justify the means.” That said, he is also sentimental, erudite, emotionally vulnerable and a patriot of the highest order. Oh, did I mention that he wears a Guy Fawkes mask for the entire picture? Not your every day movie hero, V styles himself after Fawkes, the 17th century English Catholic who, with 12 others plotted to blow up the English Parliament building to protest Protestant rule. Fawkes and his fellow plotters were captured and executed (hung, drawn and quartered, no less) and Fawkes is still burned in effigy each November 5th.
Set in a fascist Great Britain in the near future, film opens on the eve of Guy Fawkes Day with attractive, young Evey (Natalie Portman) on her way to a date. Caught out after curfew by some Fingermen, a morally…ambiguous secret police force that prowls the dark alleys of London, doing the bidding of the head of state, Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt). It becomes clear that mere arrest for breaking curfew is not enough for the Fingermen and a violent sexual assault is in the making. Not one to avoid saving a damsel in distress (nor one averse to carving up government thugs) V swoops in, saves Evey and the plot is in motion.
Off to the rooftops they go, to watch The Old Bailey, London’s main criminal court, go boom in a big way, set to the tumultuous strains of Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture. You know, the one with the serious cannon fire at the crescendo? V has arranged to blare from the PA speakers on every street corner in London, making for a very spectacular set piece, indeed! Evey, it turns out, has her own reasons not to trust the government and so while she’s not exactly a WILLING convert to the ways of V, she’s not going to blow the whistle on him, either. The following day, V takes temporary control of the state-controlled British Television Network where Evey works and broadcasts his manifesto to the entire country, announcing that in one year he would complete the task that Fawkes attempted more than 400 years earlier and implores the population to meet him there on the momentous night to stand up for themselves.
Thus the cat-and-mouse aspect of the film, by far the largest portion, is set in motion, with intelligent and curious (two things the government doesn’t like) Chief Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) hot on his trail, V darts in and out of the shadows, enacting ultimate vengeance on those who have done him wrong. At the same time he begins to wake the population up to the fact that while they are sheep and are complicit in the current state of affairs, they can also rise up and take back the country that was theirs.
None of the “sacred cows” of dictatorships are spared with death squads, corrupt clergy, mass media and Big Pharma all taking their (deserved) lumps in the screenplay written by The Matrix’s Andy and Larry Wachowski, based on a graphic novel written by (an un-credited) Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd. Moore has removed his name from the film.
Of course the film isn’t perfect. Portman’s accent wanders all over the globe, from East London to posh drawing rooms to Australia and really, her character doesn’t have much to do in the film. Things are repeatedly happening TO her (and in one particularly brutal section of the film, to her hair) and she doesn’t really do much on her own. Thankfully the direction and plot is completely void of what made the 2nd and 3rd Matrix films so execrable. No pseudo-religious new age mumbo-jumbo, no concessions to the plot, no watering down of the main theme.
As far as performances go, Weaving is a very talented voice actor and assuming he was indeed behind the mask, a talented body actor, as well. Rea puts in his usual workmanlike turn as the downtrodden investigator and Stephen Fry is touching as a famous and television presenter who becomes Evey’s older confidant and is quite busy with secrets of his own. Hurt is fantastic, chewing scenery as the polar opposite of his Winston Smith in Michael Radford‘s 1984.
Lest I end this critical section without a summing up, let me say that along with Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck, V For Vendetta has completed the Warner Brothers trifecta of daring and progressive films and is, by far, the most subversive piece of mainstream cinema since the heady days of Pakula‘s The Parallax View. Questioning your government isn’t a right or a privilege. It’s your duty.
While it first appeared that Eugene Hernandez and I were among the only journalists in Berlin who actually liked V For Vendetta, I was somewhat disappointed, but not surprised. It turned out that the film actually went over quite well but that the trade press, especially British critics, were less than impressed. I am finding more and more modern film critics and festival programmers acting like effete film history snobs, moaning about the lack of anything “new,” whatever the hell that spectacularly unspecific statement means. While l might get into what this all means at a later date, I am now much more concerned with V and why it’s an important film.
At least from an American’s point of view, V is one of those important films that don’t come along very often. Sure, we get plenty of political films in the US, but $50,000,000 studio-funded action films with a terrorist for a hero and a decidedly leftist/populist message of Power to the People? Not usually, no. You see, the US has been (and still is) in a very conservative place. Just because Bush is taking a bashing for a series of gaffs and Cheney seems to have flipped his wig completely does not mean that the country has become any less conservative at its core which is why a film with the tagline of “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people” is something of which notice should be taken. As the late, great Arthur Miller wrote through his character Linda Loman said, attention must be paid!
Sure, of course this film goes with popcorn, but it also goes with red flags and bayonets!
Other blogs on V For Vendetta:
V for Vendetta: A Matrix of Communist Revolutionaries? by Anthony Kaufman
indieWIRE’s DAILY DISPATCH FROM BERLIN: Mining for Meaning In More Berlinale Films: “Vendetta,” “Container,” “Dolls,” and “Wilson”
The Red and the Black by James Wolcott
All photos © Warner Bros. except John Hurt as Winston Smith. Dunno who has the copyright on that pic, but it ain’t me!