Directed by: James McTeigue
Starring: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt
This may not be the first great film of 2006, but it's bound to be one of the most controversial -- and that's not only in its favor, but, I suspect, of greater concern to the filmmakers than is achieving greatness.
Based on the anti-Margaret Thatcher graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore, V for Vendetta was adapted to the screen -- and modern times -- by the Wachowski brothers (of Matrix fame) and turned over to their protege, James McTeigue, to bring to life.
Setting aside all the behind-the-scenes blather about Larry Wachowski's cross-dressing and Alan Moore disowning the film (like he's disowned every film adapted from his work), what we end up with is an audacious and daunting movie that raises a lot of the right issues in the most outspoken manner possible. Needless to say, all this has caused it to have wrung some withers, raised some hackles and knotted some knickers. And I really think that's its raison d'etre -- to jolt the viewer out of complacency about the happenings in the world.
Though vaguely set in 2020 and in a Great Britain that has been overtaken by a fascist government (with the U.S. reduced to nonentity status as mere background) headed up by a Hitler-esque chancellor (John Hurt), the film is really more of a mirror of 2006 done as a cautionary tale. Its hero, known only as V (Hugo Weaving), is a masked freedom-fighter or revolutionary or terrorist -- depending on your viewpoint -- who is out to overthrow the government for reasons that are as much personal as idealistic.
Since quite a few of the incensed reviews now out there are appalled by the movie's depiction of a terrorist as heroic (one reviewer goes so far as to refer to it as an "al-Qaeda recruiting video"), it should quickly be pointed out that V's targets are invariably either the obviously guilty, or are symbolically chosen empty buildings blown up in the middle of the night. (Significantly, the buildings chosen represent ideals that have been crushed by the ruling government, and their existence has become a mockery of what they once represented.) In this second instance, the basis is more Boston Tea Party (with an admittedly upped price tag) than it is suicide bombing.
At bottom, I am bound to think that the knee-jerk response to V says more about the politics of the reviewers than it does about the film, and less about architectural destruction than about the deliberate evocations of Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, government cheerleading and spin-doctoring passed off as news by a TV network, the use of religion as a political lever, pandering to homophobia, holier-than-thou pill-popping commentators, etc. In other words, V hits a nerve, and that's the point.
It's impossible for a film about a caped action hero in a Guy Fawkes mask overthrowing an oppressive government not to be political. And if it were possible, I'm not sure what point there would be in making it.
Its pedigree as a Wachowski brothers effort immediately raises comparisons with The Matrix and its sequels, which is unfortunate. As one who never found The Matrix films -- even the first one -- to be anything more than stylish nonsense built around an indigestible, phony profundity that fell apart the more the films tried to explain it, I was surprised to find the Wachowskis tackling something that doesn't rely on effects work and uses its fantastication to convey ideas of some urgency and import. Despite a number of missteps, this is a far cry from the 3 a.m. marijuana-hazed dorm-room pseudo-intellectual prattle of The Matrix.
In some ways, V more resembles the Richard Loncraine-Ian McKellen fascist version of Richard III, though its closest spiritual ancestor is probably the 1967 Patrick McGoohan 17-part TV series, The Prisoner. The film shares that landmark series' astonishing tongue-tied eloquence -- a sophisticated, yet simplistic, lashing out at the sense that something is terribly, terribly wrong, and that we are implicitly responsible. There's a direct reference to the final episode's encounter between McGoohan's No. 6 and the all-powerful No. 1 in V -- a TV skit put on by a closeted gay TV personality (Stephen Fry) in which a bogus version of the chancellor unmasks a bogus V. (The scene also probably owes something to the George W. Bush news conference where the president poked around for weapons of mass destruction.)
The film doesn't completely work. It's too ambitious for its budget. At times, the whole of Great Britain seems to consist of one (deliberately easy to identify) family, one pub and an old folks' home. The Phantom of the Opera aspects of the disfigured V and his underground lair are perhaps too fanciful. And while Evey's (Natalie Portman) final speech and the allegorical ending are both brilliantly succinct and oddly moving, I'm not sure that will entirely register with the audience.
In other ways, the film isn't especially new. The idea of a government that invents threats to scare the people into submission and thereby justify its own existence was at the core of John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama in 2001. V, however, differs in its in-your-face, take-no-prisoners attitude, its far more mainstream target audience, and -- perhaps most significantly -- its utter lack of cynicism. This isn't a movie intended to be intellectually debated over cheese and chardonnay. It's meant to bea rallying cry -- not to revolution, but simply to shake oneself out of cynicism and malaise. Rated R for strong violence and some language.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke