Director: James McTeigue
Cast: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, Tim Pigott-Smith, Rupert Graves, Roger Allam
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence and some language)
Running Time: 2:12
Release Date: 3/17/06
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Review by Mark Dujsik
Not since the 1970s has there been such an unabashedly anarchistic studio production as V for Vendetta. The film documents the goings-on within a fictional fascist state and the actions of a sole revolutionary attempting to radically enact regime change. We learn of vast corruption within the conservative, God-fearing government, how the centralized media outlet blindly goes along with the party's spin control and helps to induce fear to keep the population complacent, and why it's dangerous to speak ill of the powers-that-be when such folks disappear into the night to be held without a reasonable charge. Watching the film, one can't help but feel a bit naughty. The general idea of anarchy is already enough to make one a tad uneasy, but in adding such topically relevant ideas as the Koran being outlawed and state-sanctioned homophobia, the sense of revolution is palpable. Taking a note out of Orwell, Big Brother is always watching, and the concern isn't how far away we are from such a society but how far removed we are from it. Overt political ramifications aside, V for Vendetta is a mild triumph of Hollywood filmmaking in that the film garners its thrills not from mindless action and special effects but from ideas.
The film opens with the story of Guy Fawkes, the seventeenth century revolutionary whose plan to blast the Parliament building was thwarted and who was subsequently executed. In London of our near future, things have turned for the worse. A tyrannical political party has elevated to power after a biological terrorist attack threatened to cripple the United Kingdom. A curfew is in effect, and Evey (Natalie Portman) is about to break it to keep a date. A pair of Fingermen, the government's secret police, catches her, but before they can have their way, a mysterious figure in a Guy Fawkes mask (Hugo Weaving) saves her from the potential assailants. His moniker is simply V, and he has a love for theatrics. After rescuing Evey, he takes her atop a building to view his latest piece: a massive explosion set to Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture". The government is furious over the bombing, and Chief Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) is assigned to the case. Soon, V televises his main plan: to finish Fawkes' work so that people will truly "Remember, remember, the fifth of November."
There's a year deadline before V takes his vendetta out on the government, and in that time, Evey becomes his pupil of sorts, learning the full extent of government corruption and betrayal and understanding the man behind the mask. In the meantime, Finch begins to delve into the vigilante's origin, uncovering a conspiracy that could reveal the entire administration as criminal itself. The screenplay by the Wachowski brothers (Andy and Larry) overlaps the larger ideas with the personal history that brought them into being. Finch's investigative hook comes in the form of murders perpetrated by V, who's dishing out personal justice to those who wronged him and the country at large, and it's a compelling mystery. As V's vengeance progresses, the dark underbelly of the Party in power slowly emerges. In shades of Halliburton, the host of popular propaganda television program and prominent member of the Party named Prothero (Roger Allam) cashes in on tragedy by buying major stock in a pharmaceutical company just before it conveniently released the antidote to the biological agent that helped put the Party in power. A mysterious woman who was "black bagged" and killed for being gay illuminates the Party's attempt to rid the country of those deemed undesirable and becomes a major backstory revelation for V.
While the allegorical allusions are blunt, they are admirable in and fitting to today's black-and-white political environment. More admirable, though, is how those concepts drive the narrative. Evey's progression from complacent outsider to involved revolutionary mirrors our own (except for the revolutionary part—hopefully). As V's own personal history becomes clearer to Finch, Evey also begins to understand his motivations on a far more ideological level. Her own parents were victims of the Fingermen, leaving her an orphan as a young child, but that experience has kept her docile until meeting V. She sees corruption and censorship in her job at the national television station but, like most who would like change but see no way to achieve it, keeps to herself. During the course of events, she begins to see how the Party's absolute power affects those she knows. Her boss Deitrich (Stephen Fry) takes her into hiding at his home, where she learns he is a closet homosexual in fear of the obvious action the Party will take on him. She also gets a firsthand account of the torture her parents went through when she herself is "black bagged." The true nature of that scenario opens up a paradox in our view of V's character. Does the end he seeks justify the means?
Natalie Portman's transformation through the course of the film gives a tangible level to the thematic development. Although her British dialect is inconsistent, the rest of her performance is far from. She allots Evey a sympathetic vulnerability throughout, especially at her character's turning point when that sympathy is vital to our connection to or detachment from V's philosophy. Less obvious but just as effective is Hugo Weaving as the vigilante. Weaving spends the entire film behind the Fawkes mask (save for one scene in which it turns out he is behind a different mask), so his physicality and vocal performance is crucial to the character's success as more than a faceless idea. Fortunately, V is quite theatrical, and Weaving rises to the challenge with aplomb. The rest of the cast is effective, but a noteworthy point of note is the inspired casting of John Hurt, who played a victim of Big Brother in the 1984 adaptation of 1984, as the ominous figurehead of totalitarian rule.
Of course the ruler's misuse of power by deception here is wrong, but one cannot help but wonder as the film progresses if V's concept is equally off. In the end, if he succeeds, will it simply be a case of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss?" V for Vendetta of course doesn't directly address these questions, but they are there nonetheless. And it's a more effective film because of them. When was the last time a major Hollywood action flick raised such an intriguing and timely debate?
Note: Speaking of British rock bands, I couldn't help but smile at the song choice over the ending credits: The Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man."
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.