This is a dangerous film. Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V FOR VENDETTA is a medieval mystery play re-imagined for the 21st century and spiffed up with some nifty, but not overbearing, special effects. A political thriller enhanced with a healthy dose of both fantasy and current relevance, it questions authority in ways that are discomfiting for some, liberating for others, and eye-opening for everyone. After watching this intelligent extrapolation of the current social and political climate, one would be hard-pressed to accept anything at face value again.
The time is the near future. The place is London. The United States have collapsed, terrorism is rampant and, and the UK has emerged as the leading light in a world gone mad. At least that is the opinion of Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam), the right-wing pundit known as the Voice of London, whose daily jingoistic rantings on the BTN television network are intolerance of the vilest sort masquerading as national pride. In this not so very brave new world, where color-coded curfews are set for the public’s protection, Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a low-level employee of the ci-mentioned network, runs afoul of the curfew and before suffering a fate worse than death at the hands of the law, is rescued by V (Hugo Weaving), a man in a sweeping cape and a Guy Fawkes mask who wields swords in ways that make mere artillery pale in comparison. Though grateful, her first question to him after listening to his mellifluous monologue about his mission to free the People, is to ask if he’s a crazy person. He answers by showing off his handiwork, blowing up London’s Old Bailey. She’s rescued again when she returns the favor during V’s takeover of BTN the next day for an unscheduled broadcast where he incites the populace to take back their country. He also corrects the previously broadcast story, dictated by the High Chancellor (John Hurt) about the Old Bailey being demolished on purpose to make way for urban renovation. It’s the spark that begins to wake the sleeping populace that in its fear and complacency has surrendered its freedom.
Thus begins a credible riff on “The Phantom of the Opera” by way of 1984 as the lovely Evey, safely ensconced in V’s underground lair, falls under the spell of this charming lone revolutionary who can steal luxuries from the High Chancellor’s private stock as well as orchestrate Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” to boom from the London’s public address system while blowing up its central court. He fusses over breakfast for her, quotes Shakespeare as easily as he breathes, plays pop standards of smoldering sensuality on his jukebox, and offers her protection after she’s been labeled a criminal as much for her parent’s political leanings and for being the wrong place at the wrong time, as for helping V escape.
Hot on their trail is Eric Finch (Stephen Rea), a good cop and decent, if rumpled man, who becomes more and more disillusioned the more he digs into V’s identity, and from piecing together what was in the official documents that are curiously missing from official archives.
It’s not the locations, the familiar landmarks of London, nor the clothing and other accoutrements, such as the Nazi-esque iconography of The Party, that ground the story in a recognizable reality. Rather, it’s the all too familiar ring of the rhetoric spewing from government officials who use security as an excuse for suppressing civil rights, and the government-scripted news shows that whip the country into submission by keeping it afraid from a variety of “threats” ranging from the civil war now raging in the former United States to suspected outbreaks of avian flu in distant countries. At home, surveillance vans roam the streets eavesdropping on conversations as a way of gauging public opinion and then shaping it, while also weeding out dissidents, deviants, and undesirables, sometimes with a knock on the door in the middle of the night and another person disappearing into the darkness.
What supports the action and allows it to unfold in a way that is engaging and engrossing are Weaving and Portman. Weaving imbues V with the necessary vibrancy of one swept up in a cause that is all consuming. Working with the handicap of the mask, he rises above it with a voice that sweeps as gracefully as a pirouette and body language that is as expressive as any facial expression. Portman fairly burns with intensity and a sweet vulnerability that gives the film an emotional base from which to work amid the political allegory at work. Director James McTeigue (working from a script by THE MATRIX’s Wachowski Brothers) never loses sight of the human element in the story, which is why the performances by a roster of first-class actors (Stephen Fry, Rupert Graves, Tim Piggot-Smith, and John Standing), are as important as the story they play out and why this is more than a crisply paced action-thriller. If it sags a bit in its narrative structure, it overcomes that with sheer energy and a potent message. When V says the film’s catch phrase, people should be afraid of their government, governments should be afraid of their people, the preview audience with whom I saw V FOR VENDETTA broke into cheers. Such is the power of this story.
Yet for all the mayhem and revolutionary fervor expected in a film of this genre, the role of violence is never glorified for its own sake. In fact, it’s deplored with an underlying political philosophy that is sophisticaed and undeniably humane. Even as V opines that sometimes violence can be good, it is also makes clear, and this is the key, that his transformation, in both body and mind, wrought by government-sanctioned torturers, has separated him forever from humanity. This is more than just a flight of fancy. As an entertainment, V FOR VENDETTA is terrific, but as a cautionary tale abut the abuse of power and its repercussions, it’s divine.