Review: V for Vendetta

This movie asks the question, “Can you take a two decade old graphic novel and make it into a successful motion picture?” To my knowledge, V for Vendetta is the first graphic novel to be made into a major motion picture. Puh-lease, do not say it was first just a comic book. Graphic novels are comic books on steroids and this particular story has plenty of testosterone to spare. Graphic novel themes tend to be adult, the artwork detailed and the writing is certainly way beyond what you will find in Archie Comics.

V for Vendetta was first published in the United Kingdom in serial form between 1982 and 1985. It was written by Alan Moore and illustrated (mostly) by David Lloyd. The graphic novel was one of Alan Moore’s first major works. My wife is a big fan of Alan Moore and David Lloyd. V for Vendetta has sat in our graphic novel library for at least a decade, and she considers it one of the best in her collection. So naturally, she was excited when she learned it was coming to the screen. The screenplay was written by The Wachowski Brothers (who gave us The Matrix movies) but fortunately was directed by someone else (James McTeigue). As you may have noticed, The Wachowski Brothers went downhill since the first Matrix movie.

The hero, if you can call an anarchist and terrorist a hero, is a man named V. The novels postulate an England that entered into a dark age in the late 1970s because of a biological warfare incident that left tens of thousands of British citizens dead. Consequently, a traumatized public voted in an extremely conservative government. It quickly went about setting up a totalitarian state in order to ensure that “England prevails”. The story takes place in this alternate reality sometime around our present day. V is a one-man vigilante force out to bring down the totalitarian state and (in the graphic novel) institute anarchy. In the movie, V is more of a gentleman. He wants to restore the republic. To do that for some reason he has to blow up the British parliament. V wears a Guy Fawkes mask throughout the movie. Beneath the mask, you can hear the always polite but sometimes sarcastic voice of Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith from The Matrix movies). As you might expect the omnipresent mask made the acting something of a challenge for Weaving.

V saves a young woman named Evey from some state thugs on Guy Fawkes Day (November 5th). Shortly afterward, when she is still catching her breath, he allows her to witness with him his first major act of terrorism: blowing up the Old Bailey in London. To save Evey (Natalie Portman) he eventually has to take her to his secret underground lair. Naturally, they develop a strong relationship that grows stronger as Evey begins to help V with some of his violent deeds. This also made her a woman marked by the state.

Can one man bring down a fascist state? It sounds preposterous and, well, it is. More importantly, can the director carry it off? With Hugo Weaving hiding behind a mask, it is up to Natalie Portman to carry most of the film’s acting burden. Those who have seen the later Star Wars movies know that her acting left much to be desired. Fortunately, it turned out that George Lucas was just a lousy director. In the hands of a good director like McTeigue she gets a chance to show she has the right stuff. You will not be disappointed and more than a little stunned by her exceptional acting in this movie. Because she succeeds so well, the film gains more than a modicum of plausibility.

Fortunately, the acting and directing are uniformly good throughout the movie. John Hurt gets to reprise (in a way) his role as Caligula from the I, Claudius BBC series from the 1970s. Here he plays Adam Sutler, the ultraconservative megalomaniac chancellor of Great Britain. After V turns the Old Bailey into rubble and warns that the following Guy Fawkes Day, he will destroy the British Parliament building, Sutler goes off the deep end trying to prevent the destruction of Parliament and thus his hold on power. Yet despite a state monopoly on dangerous explosives, V has managed to stuff a subway train full of high explosives all by himself, which he plans to hurdle under the Parliament to reduce it to rubble.

Since this is more of an allegorical tale, it is best not to invest too much time in the implausible aspects of the movie, and just go with the flow. You will likely find the movie reasonably engaging, even if V’s perpetually grinning mask gets annoying after a while. V’s philosophy makes a certain amount of creepy sense by the end of the movie. It is not very often when you find yourself rooting for terrorists and anarchists, particularly in our post 9/11 world. Yet you may be cheering along as V blows up buildings.

For me though it was just a tad too implausible. V’s omnipresent mask eventually became wholly distracting. In addition, as the movie progressed I noticed little incongruities that annoyed me. For example, the United States was supposed to be in the grip of civil war and anarchy, yet there were plentiful numbers of Dell computer monitors (can we say “product placement”?) Despite decades of supposed relative isolation and sanctions, Great Britain has all the latest toys and technology, which could only happen in a robust global economy. Moreover, what was with the millions of Guy Fawkes masks seemingly delivered to everyone in Great Britain? No one in the totalitarian state was aware of it and nipped it in the bud? These are not little pebbles that you are likely to trip over, but substantial rocks. They clearly detract from the movie.

The creepiest part of the movie is seeing how so many elements of it are happening today here in the United States, courtesy of my government. From the torture, to the bald-faced lies coming from their leaders, to sending citizens to prison with no chance of a trial, to the deeply conservative government, to the unquestioned loyalty to the Chancellor, if the parallels do not make you squirm uncomfortably in your seat a bit, you are not fully awake. Give the current yahoos running the United States another ten years in power and, sadly, our lives will bear more than a passing resemblance to this alternate reality. Arguably, we are half there already.

This is a good movie worth the price, but for the flaws mentioned above it gets 3.2 on my 4.0 scale.

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