BOOKS AND ARTS AUGUST 1, 2006
"Remember, remember the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and plot," a voiceover intones at the opening of V for Vendetta. "I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot." The popular British rhyme--which the film generously repeats again less than ten minutes later for those stuck in the concession line the first time around--refers, of course, to Guy Fawkes's unsuccessful plot to blow up the British Parliament in 1605. Though Fawkes and his radical Catholic co-conspirators managed to smuggle eighteen hundred pounds of gunpowder into a cellar beneath Parliament, they were caught before bringing their plan to fruition, and were subsequently tried and executed. Guy Fawkes Day and its attendant conventions--the grinning Fawkes masks, the burning in effigy of a Fawkes dummy--are celebrations not of the plot, but of its failure. (Indeed, subsequent verses of the "Fifth of November" include some choice words for the Pope.)
When writer Alan Moore chose Guy Fawkes as a model for "V," the masked antihero of his dystopian 1980s comic book "V for Vendetta," he obviously understood this context. Though V is trying to topple a fascist regime (based on Moore's decidedly paranoid view of Thatcherism), he is himself an ambiguous figure, an anarchistic force of pure destruction who is quite possibly insane. The first sign of trouble with the $50 million film adaptation of Moore's story (written by the Wachowski brothers of Matrix fame, and directed by their prot?g? James McTiegue) is the brief but peculiar introduction of Fawkes, a religious extremist and terrorist, as a heroic martyr. It is an early taste of how V will be presented--also a terrorist, also a hero--and of the moral and political idiocies to come.
Moore's comic envisioned a fascist British government that had come to power in the wake of a nuclear war. The film, released on video today, updates this scenario for contemporary (and American) audiences in two ways: First, the event that precipitated the descent into dictatorship was a biological attack on English soil; and second, though allegedly the work of terrorists, the attack was in fact conducted by the British government itself, as a pretext for exerting vast, police-state powers over the lives of its citizens. The resonance with critiques of the Bush administration's political use of the war on terror are hard to miss and entirely intentional.
Whether or not one believes that governments manufacture crises and invent enemies in this way, there's one group clearly guilty of the accusation: Hollywood filmmakers. What do movies do, after all, if not spin fictions intended to manipulate our emotions? A villain is conceived and given loathsome qualities in order that we will thrill when the hero dispatches him. Creating such imaginary foes is an innocent enough device when it comes to entertainment--a necessary one, even--but it is to some degree a fascist one, and as such an awkward fit for a film, like V for Vendetta, that wants to lecture us about the horrors of fascism. We're meant to hate the movie's imaginary dictatorship for its violent means; so much so that, by the end, we will find V's flamboyant violence against the dictatorship good and just and emotionally satisfying.
The whole movie builds toward this bloody catharsis. It opens with young Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) setting out into the London streets at night, on her way to an appointment. She is accosted, however, by plainclothes policemen who inform her that it is past curfew and declare their intention, by way of punishment, to rape her. They are interrupted by the appearance of "V" (Hugo Weaving), a clown-masked, knife-wielding champion with a tiresome fondness for iambic pentameter and words beginning with his own initial. ("Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose," he notes with commendable self-awareness.) After dispatching Evey's tormentors, V invites her to a nearby rooftop to witness the culmination of a pet project of his--specifically, the explosive demolition of the Old Bailey courthouse. And what a display it is: Though he may be a terrorist, V is a showman too: He leads up to his big bang by blaring the 1812 Overture from speakers all around the city, and he follows it with a professional-grade fireworks show.
If this opening sounds astonishingly silly, that's because it is. But, while there are plenty of embarrassing moments still to come--when, for instance, V brings Evey to his art-strewn secret lair and declares, "It's my home. I call it the Shadow Gallery"--the film gradually acquires considerable narrative texture and weight. V conducts a series of vendettas against individual enemies that are staged with style and sophistication. Evey leaves and reunites with V more than once, at one point hiding out with her kindly boss (Stephen Fry), who proves to be a secret subversive--a gay art collector who uses his TV variety show to poke fun at the government. (At least, that is, until said government breaks into his house and beats him to death.) And a sympathetic policeman named Finch (Stephen Rhea), himself something of an outsider thanks to his Irish heritage, tries to piece together V's history, which seems connected to a secret government prison camp long since abandoned.
Fry and Rhea both bring a dose of nuance and humanity to the proceedings, and thank goodness. The villains of the film are for the most part one-dimensional monsters: a pedophile priest, a bullyboy talk-show host, a dead-eyed chief of the secret police, and John Hurt as the "Chancellor," a ranting, goateed tyrant whose towering countenance berates his underlings from what appears to be an Imax screen. (It's an enjoyable if obvious reversal of his casting as Winston Smith in 1984.) V, too, is an inevitably distant, inhuman figure, expressionless and indistinct in his jester's mask. At times Weaving's dialogue, which was re-dubbed after filming, seems utterly disconnected from V's grinning visage, as if it were the voice of a disembodied narrator. (Indeed, it's not even consistently Weaving behind the mask; in addition to stunt doubles, there are still some scenes that feature James Purefoy, who was initially cast as V, but left after a few weeks of filming.) As Evey, Portman is the film's intended star, but she carries it only intermittently. I've written before about the actress's disconcerting girlishness, and while it is less problematic here than in other recent performances (with the exception of an all-too-convincing scene in which she dresses up as teenage pedophile-bait), she still fails to command the camera's attention. As a result, the scenes between Evey and V are frequently the least compelling in the film.
The supporting performances by Fry and Rhea (and also Sinead Cusack, as a repentant villainess) are equally crucial as a counterpoint to the otherwise pitiless politics of the film: They suggest the possibility of reconciliation, of a middle ground between the government jackboot and V's violent resistance. There is a period in the latter half of the movie, when the filmmakers show signs of recognizing V to be a mirror image of the very dictators he seeks to depose: He uses torture toward dubious ends; he foments disorder, culminating in a little girl's death, in order to rouse the public to his cause. For a while, it seems even Evey, the movie's conscience, may abandon V's retributive plan.
Alas, she doesn't. In the end, the moral ambiguities are cast aside, as if the inadvertent missteps of a film that has exceeded its creators' grasp. V is once again the hero--a role the movie still inanely imagines he shares with Fawkes--and we are meant to cheer not one but two violent climaxes. The first is a bloody blade ballet in which V dispatches a troop of paramilitary thugs, a scene that fetishizes knives as thoroughly as The Matrix did bullets. V's shimmering blades pinwheel through the air and arterial spray blossoms like crimson fireworks, all in rapturous slo mo. Earlier in the film, V had lectured, "While the truncheon can be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power." Evidently, he meant on those occasions when you don't have a good stiletto handy.
A few minutes later we're treated to a scene still more troublesome. The government has already been toppled and its villainous architects killed. And yet, Parliament must still be blown up, fulfilling Fawkes's 400-year-old dream but no other discernable purpose. Tchaikovsky's notes swell anew as orange flames shatter the tall windows of Westminster and hurl the clock faces from Big Ben. The only explanation we're offered is V's earlier admonition that "a building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it.... blowing up a building can change the world." This is inarguably true, as two separate al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Towers amply demonstrated. (It is a resonance to which V for Vendetta is either sadly oblivious or perversely attracted.) In detonating Westminster, the Wachowskis and McTeigue go at once too far and not far enough: too far, in expecting us to applaud the senseless destruction of one of the historic cathedrals of democracy; and not far enough, in hesitating to make their point by blowing up the White House or the Capitol dome, the true targets of their juvenile political ire. Their film is a bank shot against Bush, simultaneously radical and cowardly. In the end it's not clear which characteristic is the more embarrassing.
The Home Movies List: Vendettas
The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). V screens this classic for Evey in the Shadow Gallery, and with good reason: Often adapted for the screen, Dumas's story of betrayal and revenge has never been better treated than here, with Robert Donat at his best as Edmond Dantes. More persuasive evidence of the of the tale's enduring appeal, however, is perhaps offered by the 2002 version with Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce, which manages to be at the same time largely uninspired and pretty darned entertaining. Get Carter (1971). A lithe and vicious little thriller, with a young Michael Caine at the height of his reptilian powers as a small-time hood out to avenge his brother's death. Caine wouldn't tap his reservoirs of quiet depravity so deeply again until his turn as Mortwell in Neil Jordan's magnificent Mona Lisa.Payback (1999). No, not what the anti-defamation folks are savoring after Mel Gibson's automotive imbroglio. Rather, a vanity project from before his well-marketed ascension to modern apostle. Brian Helgeland (who scripted L.A. Confidential) was the director until Mel decided his character wasn't portrayed appropriately and sacked him. That's revenge. Memento (2000).What becomes of a quest for retribution when it cannot be concluded--or, worse, is concluded endlessly but without memory or satisfaction? Overlooked in part thanks to the genius of its riddle-structure, Christopher Nolan's breakthrough film is not merely a gimmick film, but a small masterpiece of existential inquiry.Kill Bill Vols 1 and 2 (2003-2004). The only death of consequence in either film is that of Tarantino's career. Guest directing episodes of "CSI" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live," piggybacking on pal Robert Rodriguez for work on Sin City and Grind House: This is what's become of the most promising director of the 1990s? (For my take on what went wrong see here and here.)
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.