Spinning Out of Control

Washington City Paper | March 17, 2006
V for Vendetta is set in a futuristic Great Britain, but make no mistake: The themes of lies, loss of liberties, and spin control that dominate this adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel have everything to do with red-statism run amok. The antihero of the story, a former prisoner simply named V, is out to change the U.K.’s now-fascist government, which posts signs around London that read, “Strength through unity, unity through faith.” The administration preapproves television scripts, too, and maintains a “vault of objectionable materials.” It even denies its citizens butter, because...because it’s for their own good.

So you want to root for this radical—after all, he’s introduced saving a young miss who’s out after curfew from a team of horny patrolmen. But then V says, “Blowing up a building can change the world,” and suddenly you don’t know whose side you’re on.

Perhaps that’s why Moore wanted his name taken off the credits. (Either that, or because the big-screen versions of two of his other comics, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, were butchered.) Moore published Vendetta in 1989 as an attack on the Thatcher administration, but in the hands of scripters and The Matrix creators Andy and Larry Wachowski, the time frame has quite obviously been updated—with bioterror, wiretapping, discrimination against homosexuals, and even avian flu. When the curfew-breaker, Evey (Natalie Portman), tells V (Hugo Weaving) about the demise of her activist parents, she recalls her mother wanting to leave the country and her father insisting, “If we ran away, they would win!”

So the Wachowskis aren’t subtle. And as the Matrix trilogy proved, they won’t use one word when 10 will do, either. V, caped and sporting a Jack White bob, top hat, and creepy Guy Fawkes mask, introduces himself to Evey in a cascade of alliteration—V, naturally, being his favorite letter—and incomprehensible blather. At the end of V’s speech, a frightened but intrigued Evey asks, “Are you, like, a crazy person?” Remarkably, intelligible English takes over from there.

The two meet on the eve of Nov. 5, the day on which Britons remember Fawkes, a Catholic conspirator who was hanged in 1606 for attempting to blow up Parliament the year before. Traditionally, fireworks are set off and effigies are burned on that night to celebrate his capture, but V starts his party a day early. Asking Evey if she likes music, V takes her to the roof of a nearby building and starts conducting an invisible orchestra. At midnight, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture begins to blare out of street speakers, and fireworks go off as the Old Bailey is, you guessed it, blown up.

V and Evey, who works at a television station, run into each other again the next day, as V takes over the airwaves and declares, “The truth is there’s something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there?” He threatens that he will carry out Fawkes’ plot if changes aren’t made within a year. Police storm the building, and when one of them finally captures V, Evey finds herself helping him escape. She’s knocked out and wakes up in V’s cultivated underground lair, which is filled with art, sculpture, books, and even a 14th-century copy of the Koran. “I don’t have to be Muslim to appreciate its beauty,” he says.

The movie then follows the pair as they cycle through bonds and separations over the next year, though first-time director James McTeigue gives little indication of time passing. Nor does he craft Vendetta into quite the action movie the trailers make it out to be. For a big-screen version of a graphic novel, there’s not much flash, and though V proves to be rather adroit with knives when facing a group of authority figures and has a list of pro-government people that he systematically murders, there’s not much blood, either. Only the flashbacks get some real color—including one scene reminiscent of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates—while present-day London is all dark and gloomy, apparently indicative of the pall cast over its straitjacketed citizenry.

Except for Portman’s creditably accented Evey and Stephen Rea’s unexpressive investigator, who begins to discover how corrupt the government really is, most of the characters are outsized: Weaving, The Matrix’s Agent Smith, seethes behind his mask. Roger Allam is the loudmouthed Bill O’Reilly–ish host of a news program. And fighting to maintain control of his people is chancellor John Hurt, who’s always shown bellowing to his minions in giant-screen video conferences.

Question is, is all the bombast worth it? And here’s another one: Is it wrong to expect a Serious Examination of the Issues from a pop-cultural whirl that throws together 1984, Batman, Zorro, A Clockwork Orange, and just about any other dark-avenger/rebel-with-a-cause/totalitarian-futureworld source you can think of? Well, yes and no and yes and no. Overall, Vendetta ends up alternately mesmerizing and lulling, the latter mostly when each of V’s murders is investigated with little variation. The avalanche of issues is, for the most part, superficially dealt with, though the filmmakers do successfully leave you with the notion that a too-involved government is bad, bad, bad.

And what about V’s strategy of blowing up buildings? “I want this terrorist found,” the chancellor rages, “and I want him to know what terror really is.” The Wachowskis don’t quite deliver on that last part—but at least V’s revolution is no Revolutions.

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