V FOR VENDETTA (12/11/2005)
Director: James McTeigue
Cast: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea

My Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 73%

PLOT: In a dystopian future Britain, a shadowy freedom fighter, known only by the alias of “V” (Weaving), plots to overthrow the totalitarian government with the help of a young woman (Portman).

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“V for Vendetta” is based on the single greatest graphic novel I’ve ever read, bar none. It transcends the confines of the narrow term “comic book” and becomes a leaping, soaring work of fiction that should be on every serious reader’s Must-Read list. When I heard a movie version was coming, and that it was being produced by the visionary minds behind “The Matrix” trilogy, reader, I will not lie…I flipped out a little. At last, the mass market would have a chance to see what I’d been talking about all these years.

To say the movie does not exactly match up to the graphic novel seems a little unfair. After all, I’m a chief proponent of the notion that movie adaptations of books, TV shows, et. al., deserve the chance to stand apart from their source materials. On those merits alone, “V for Vendetta” works, albeit a little unevenly.

Hugo Weaving was a great choice for the title role of a masked revolutionary whose face is never fully seen, whose voice and gestures alone must carry the character for the duration of the film. At first, one is reminded of Willem Dafoe playing the Green Goblin in the first Sam Raimi “Spider-Man” film. It’s unsettling, but it works better here, due to the ambiguous nature of the mask itself, which is the traditional Guy Fawkes mask. It’s a smiling visage, but the light-hearted nature of the face presented to the public makes it infinitely more creepy and untrustworthy.

The central story of the movie works well enough. It’s a trope that I, for one, have always thoroughly enjoyed: the story of a man, or of people, rebelling against the dystopian forces governing their lives. There are echoes of countless other films in this story: “Equilibrium”, “1984”, “The Matrix”, “Gladiator”, etcetera. In fact, although it’s set in Britain, I’d go as far as saying it’s a distinctly American story, given the history of our country’s origins. It’s always deeply gratifying to see corrupt powers-that-be get their comeuppance by the final reel.

My reservations with the movie lie primarily with certain long stretches of expository dialogue providing vital information, particularly with the chief inspector, Finch (played by Stephen Rea), re-telling a gruesome episode involving the deaths of tens of thousands of children due to disease, and of their government’s possible role in the epidemic. While the information is needed as backdrop for what comes later, it brings the movie to a screeching halt. And it happens more than once. This is the movie’s greatest flaw: the need for tons of information that is more easily conveyed in the written word than it is on film.

However, for the viewer that is not deterred by these long stretches, the movie is immensely satisfying. It sets up a loathsome Supreme Chancellor (played with spittle-spraying gusto by John Hurt) whose primary message to his cabinet is to instill fear in the general populace, to “remind them why they NEED US!” The various action scenes are expertly done, reminding me of the best fight scenes from the “Bourne” movies, with a little extra flair provided by V’s weapons of choice, lethal throwing knives. And the finale is suitably spectacular…make sure your volume is turned up to eleven.

[WARNING: WANNA-BE PHILOSOPHIZING AHEAD]

The movie contains one speech that is NOT in the graphic novel, and which troubled me greatly the first time I heard it, and is still problematic for me today. At the opening of the film, “V” has blown up a building in London as a sign of protest, which of course parallels the face of the mask he has chosen. Evey, a young woman who has come into his care (long story), questions him about his future plans to blow up the Parliament building:

V: “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”

EVEY: “And you’ll make that happen by blowing up a building?”

V: “The building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it. Symbols are given power by people. Alone, a symbol is meaningless, but with enough people…blowing up a building can change the world.”

At the time of the movie’s release, four short years after 9/11, this was startling to hear. Other movies had already referenced it as a historical event (“Love Actually”, “Jersey Girl”, possibly others), but this was approaching the act itself in a deeper sense. Here is the hero of our story talking casually, heroically, about doing exactly what the terrorists of 9/11 were hoping to do. In the context of the movie, he makes sense: the totalitarian villains must be sent a message that the people will be sheep no longer. But…I couldn’t help thinking that this is the philosophy that drove Timothy McVeigh, and the 9/11 perpetrators, and the Weathermen, and Ted Kaczynski, and countless others. Is it possible to look at this idea of “symbol-killing” in a positive light? In this day and age, do we even WANT to find a positive spin to the idea of blowing up a building as a symbolic act?

As I said, for me it was problematic, and it cast a faint shadow over everything that came after it. Yes, “V” is definitely the hero here, but is this line of thinking dangerous? I dunno. Perhaps I’m overthinking it, but there you go.

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