V for Vendetta

In V for Vendetta, screenwriters/producers Andy and Larry Wachowski (of the Matrix trilogy) pour all of their fear and loathing of the Bush administration into a dystopian melodrama. The problem is, this particular story shouldn’t be about the Bush/Cheney gang. British writer Alan Moore, mapping out the original V comic book in the early ’80s, aimed his barbs straight at the heart of the Thatcher government. And his tale was less about political alarmism than about a romantic carpe diem ethos in which the anarchy of individuality trumps the jackboot of conformity. Obviously that’s a theme close to the hearts of the siblings who pitted Neo against computer domination. But it gets lost amid too much thunder, not enough poetry, and too many senseless additions to or subtractions from Moore’s narrative.

As in the comic, a dark loner known only as V (Hugo Weaving) prowls London in a cloak and a mask patterned after Guy Fawkes, who famously tried to blow up Parliament in 1605. It’s the near future, and England is under a totalitarian regime that rose from the ashes of war and plague. (America, we’re told, is a shadow of its former self.) V’s mission is to wipe out the fascist machine and restore control to the people. He warms up by blowing up Big Ben, and later commandeers the government-controlled British broadcasting system to deliver his message to the oppressed and oppressors alike. He also rescues young Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) from rapist policemen and whisks her back to his lair, full of banned pop culture like Julie London on the jukebox and The Count of Monte Cristo on the telly.

So far, so good. But the Wachowskis (who gave this project to their longtime assistant director James McTeigue to helm) don’t have much to say beyond Totalitarianism = Bad, Freedom = Good. Alan Moore made an eloquent case for art surviving the maw of conformity: “Anarchy must embrace the din of bombs and cannon-fire,” his V soliloquized, “but always must it love sweet music more.” The Wachowskis hit some of the same notes, but they don’t come anywhere near Moore’s sweet music. Some of their additions are rubbish: Stephen Fry turns up as Evey’s noble boss at the network, who has a secret stash of contraband political art and puts together a Benny Hill-style program viciously satirizing the regime’s chancellor (John Hurt). Does he think he won’t be dragged away and shot for this? Or is he trying to go out in a contemptuous blaze of glory? The film doesn’t make it clear. When the script sticks close to Moore — as in a bravura anecdote about Valerie, a lesbian movie star turned casualty of the homophobic regime — it works best. Which, sadly, is seldom.

The look of V for Vendetta is perfect: blooms of orange fire at midnight, reflected off black latex and sharp steel. The film is a fine Viking funeral for the late cinematographer Adrian Biddle (who shot Aliens and Thelma & Louise; he died in 2005 after completing this film). And I’d be lying if I said the movie’s bracketing sequences of bomb-gasm didn’t give me a surge of adrenaline; it’s hard not to succumb when the “1812 Overture” bellows in accompaniment. (It sounds cheesy on paper, but plays beautifully.) But the film is a muddle, a victim of trying to shoehorn too much incident from a ten-issue comic series into a 132-minute film, and adding irrelevant things like the secret origin of the plague that befell London. If the analogy to the Bush America is meant to hold up all the way, the filmmakers sidle up to suggesting that the White House engineered 9/11 for political gain. Even Michael Moore didn’t take it that far.

The heavy breathing in the press over whether V for Vendetta “glorifies terrorism” is a smokescreen. V only blows up empty buildings and only kills those who have done a lot to deserve his vengeance (or who try to kill him); he’s not a terrorist, he’s a garden-variety vigilante, only the thugs he takes down are enemies in high places. The various heroes in Sin City (also based on graphic novels) did much the same thing, on a smaller scale. And the theme of the little guy against the evil machine is nothing new, needless to say: Orwell, Bradbury, Terry Gilliam, and many others have walked this path before. This movie simply doesn’t add much to the gallery of dystopian art — where Moore’s book already hangs quite prominently — aside from an embittered topicality that will look rather dusty in a decade or so.

It’s capably acted — Stephen Rea sags expressively as the inspector on V’s trail; Portman carries off Evey’s arc from naïf to radical with aplomb. But the film shouts when it should sing. Bombastically insecure, it treats the audience like V treats Evey, preaching condescendingly and instructing us to watch the fireworks. But, as it has been translated and condensed for multiplex consumption, it really has no deeper meaning beyond the fireworks. V for Vendetta was denounced in some quarters as dangerous and irresponsible. I’ll bet the Wachowskis would love to think it is. But at heart it’s as unwittingly conformist as those rebellious throngs of British citizens at the end, wearing their identical Guy Fawkes masks and cloaks, an army of Vs unknowingly obliterating their own individuality (a touch that was not in the book) for the sake of a cool visual.

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