The shame of V for Vendetta is that it has a lot more on its mind than it knows how to handle. Here we have a film that is a stylized visual fantasy about the Individual vs. the State, a la The Matrix—courtesy of the same writers and executive producer—and that should resonate deeply with the spirit of the times, but instead it feels smug and obvious. Ostensibly the filmmakers wanted to provoke thought about one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter, but the movie stacks the deck all wrong. The end result is brazenly confused, invoking a great many things—the Holocaust, the War on Terror, etc.—without ever really building on them.
V is an adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel of the same name, and one of the odd things about the film is that its own distinct flaws further illuminate the problems I had with the original story to begin with. Moore is a visionary and an artist, but no great shakes as a political thinker, and so his story was essentially a fever dream in which a fascist and inhumane Britain gets its comeuppance thanks to a lone jester with a mask. The story’s most credible insight is that ideas are bigger than individuals, and that you can blow out a candle but not a brush fire, etc., but the movie takes even these few notions and trivializes them. The Wachowski Brothers seem to be consistently fascinated with the idea of the individual transcending the collective, but each time they’ve made a movie about it the results have been messy, to put it politely.
Like the graphic novel, V is set in a 20-minutes-in-the-future England that has survived great catastrophe—great enough to bring “the Colonies” to its knees, and probably wreck most of the rest of the world as well. Curfews, surveillance cameras and “Fingermen”—an amoral secret police force—make life mean and grim. One night, the meek Evie (Natalie Portman) is cornered by a squad of Fingermen, and then just as suddenly saved by “V” (Hugo Weaving), a mysterious militant-of-the-night in a Guy Fawkes mask and flowing trenchcoat. He is the embodiment of everything that the current regime has tried to sweep out of the way, and is on a self-appointed mission to destroy it by any means necessary. If he can get everyone else to come along for the ride, all the better.
V lives in a massive lair stuffed with the (ostensibly suppressed) books and artifacts of a bygone era—much like the hideouts of the “Sense Offenders” in Equilibrium, a slightly smarter movie than this one if only because it knew its limits as a work of fiction. She feels sympathetic towards V—although way too early for it to be thematically appropriate–but welches out when she goes on one of his revenge missions. Much of the plot involves V playing the government against itself and sowing the seeds of discontent in the population, developments which grow increasingly improbable and nonsensical and sprout plot holes big enough to drive a train through (which, in the end, the movie rather literally does).
Part of the problem with the story is Evie, and part of the problem with Evie can be pinned on how she was changed from the original story. There, she was a gutter-dweller, a hapless prole, who by degrees becomes a determined and resolute fighter. Here, she’s a teagirl in a TV studio, already feisty and already so primed to join V on his crusade that in the first twenty minutes of the film she maces someone who has him at gunpoint. The movie further compounds this error in judgment by leaving intact one of the original story’s strongest and most moving sequences, wherein Evie is taken into custody and made to confess (although it has an ending I won’t spoil here). There, it had weight; here, it hardly seems like she has that far to go in the first place.
There are other errors in judgment. In one of the movie’s more improbable twists, Evie’s TV-show boss (Stephen Fry) is homosexual (forbidden, of course) has a cache of his own censored exotica—including a copy of the Koran, which forbade homosexuality, oh irony!—and doesn’t believe he’ll be punished for staging a spoof of the Powers That Be. Not until men in black kick in his door, of course. Perhaps the idea was to show that a crackdown is in progress, or how the people are being primed to laugh off their leaders—but by any standard of logic, this sort of thing would have been anathema years ago in the movie’s universe. Equally ludicrous is how the movie glosses over Evie not being picked up by the police for essentially the entire final third of the film, but by that time the movie has already abandoned any pretense of telling a credible story and is simply throwing spectacle on the screen. This goes double for the big finale, where the movie can’t seem to make up its mind if the masses are indeed independent beings or just a bunch of sheep that just need a charismatic shepherd.
The biggest problem, again, is that the story is essentially a smug wish-fulfillment fantasy. I didn’t like the Matrix sequels much—they were raggedly told and too in love with their own ideas to really be accessible or coherent, but at least their ideas were unfolded in their own arena. V is built out of ideas that were already tedious and shopworn, and have only survived the transition to a big-budget movie project with the labels intact. “You think blowing up Parliament is going to make this country a better place?” Evie asks at one point. V’s reply: “There’s no certainty, only opportunity.” The movie’s mentality is a glum echo of all the revolutionary thinkers of past eras who insisted the only way to change things was to smash them down. It’s pop-culture Franz Fanon: if the masses rise up and butcher their oppressors indiscriminately, bully for them, and never mind if we’ve just traded one set of problems for another.
There is one scene that’s quite inspired and that cuts fairly close to what the whole thing really ought to be about, when V hijacks the emergency broadcast network and cheerfully tells the populace that they only have themselves to blame for knuckling under to the power-mongers. Great, except that the only credible alternative he offers them is to blow things up—which anyone over the age of twelve at this point ought to realize is no real alternative at all. “People should not be afraid of their governments,” V intones. “Governments should be afraid of their people.” As if that were any better. The worst thing about V is that it makes monochrome
totalitarianism authoritarianism look more appealing than flamboyant anarchy.
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