Anarchy in the U.K.

Salt Lake City Weekly | March 14, 2006
Even in an era when the term “graphic novel” has given the comic book an air of legitimacy, you probably think you know what you’re getting from a movie like V for Vendetta based on an illustrated story. And you probably aren’t expecting what may be the most politically subversive blockbuster ever created.

Longtime fans of graphic literature will know that there has been no shortage of stories with rich thematic material, but that doesn’t mean filmmakers have done that material justice. You can understand why Alan Moore—who wrote the V for Vendetta graphic novel—has gotten pissy about having his name removed from adaptations of his work, having already seen his From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen trampled for pop-audience palatability. But V for Vendetta proves to be a surprisingly faithful version of Moore’s story—all the more surprising because it remains such a vital call to arms.

Like Moore’s story, V for Vendetta is set in a near-future England where unrest—in this case, terrorist biological attacks—has led to the rise of a fascistic government. State police are free to do what they will, including assaulting poor young women like Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) who make the mistake of being out after curfew. But Evey finds an unlikely rescuer in V (Hugo Weaving), who wears the mask of long-ago British rebel Guy Fawkes. V has plans for bringing the government of the Chancellor (John Hurt) to its knees, unless a local police detective (Stephen Rea) can find out V’s identity first.

V for Vendetta was adapted by The Matrix’s Wachowski Brothers, and it’s not hard to spot some fundamental connections between the works. Like The Matrix, V for Vendetta is essentially a story of political awakening. V plays Morpheus to Evey’s Neo, offering a choice between oblivious security and rebellion against the machine.

But this version of the story doesn’t mess around with allegory. Where Moore’s story was a response to Thatcher England, this updated version takes square aim at policies in a “war on terror” world. And like V, it’s pointing its finger as much at the people who “gave in to fear” as at the leaders who took advantage of that fear. V for Vendetta attacks national retreats into piety and repression that find their justification in keeping the people safe—including from themselves.

Yet the film also makes the risky choice of making its protagonist more than a little nuts. V is a philosopher, to be sure—and make no mistake, John Q. Teen Moviegoer, V for Vendetta is more a drama of ideas than it is an action-packed adventure—but as we learn from his origin, his goals are as much personal as they are political. This single-minded madness allows him to be a less romanticized freedom fighter—and by extension, it becomes easier to see the strange internal logic guiding every kind of terrorist action.

It’s unfortunate that it’s not as easy to see the internal logic of England’s leaders. Moore’s V spent time inside the head of the Chancellor, trying to understand a dictator’s conviction that his actions are necessary. Here, Hurt’s nothing more than a Big Brother face on a television screen, and the film’s other antagonists—a TV personality whose God-fearing persona gives way to swearing like a sailor; a pederast clergyman—become easy stereotypes of hypocritical external conservatism. The government’s “evil” becomes too easy a target when it’s not balanced by its own rationalizations.

Still, there’s something consistently invigorating about watching a film like this take so many chances. It’s asking its audience—largely young males—to recognize the injustice of turning homosexuals into scapegoats. It plays with its own concept of reality, manufacturing a conspiracy theory then undercutting it as possible nonsense—though easy to believe when the government lies in so many other ways. Director James McTeigue—a longtime Wachowskis collaborator making his feature directing debut—maintains a pulse of energy even when the film is delivering speeches, which is something the Wachowskis themselves couldn’t do in the last two Matrix films. The result is something flawed but urgent, and in its way a louder rebel yell than anything concocted by Michael Moore—because by speaking to the comic book blockbuster crowd, it’s not already speaking to the converted.


*** (three stars)

Starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea

Directed by James McTeigue

Rated R.

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