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Sunday 19 March 2006

V for Vendetta

a review by Claude Lalumière

Directed by James McTeigue

Written by The Wachowski Brothers, based on the comics by Alan Moore (uncredited) and David Lloyd

Starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, and Tim Pigott-Smith

It's a shame that relations between, on the one hand, comics legend Alan Moore and, on the other, publisher DC Comics and the film industry reached the breaking point during the making of the film adaptation of V for Vendetta. Certainly, past film adaptations of Alan Moore comics have been, to say the least, less than faithful. From Hell, although an excellent film on its own terms, is a poor reflection of its source material. And the less said about the idiotic travesty that is the film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the better.

But V for Vendetta finally gets it right ... without — at his request — Alan Moore's name anywhere in the credits. Whatever the full story behind this unfortunate mess, what we are left with is a film — a great film.

Is the film an exact reproduction of the comics? No. The story was streamlined; some characters were somewhat altered; references were updated to evoke the current climate of right-wing repression rather than its 1980s Thatcher iteration. Regardless, V for Vendetta the film is faithful to the spirit of Alan Moore's creation, and the story does more or less follow the same pattern.

In a near future England, fear has led to a totalitarian, fundamentalist-Christian, fascist regime that, in the name of protection from disease and terrorism, has purged the country of undesirables such as immigrants (i.e., non-whites) and homosexuals. The regime imposes Orwellian control over the media; curfews limit citizens' movements; many documents, books, pieces of art, songs, etc. are blacklisted; and law enforcement is accountable only to Party leaders. In this repressive climate, an opposing force emerges, a masked terrorist going by the name of V (played by Hugo Weaving), who is himself a monstrous creation of the system he dreams of shattering. When he rescues a young woman, Evey (Natalie Portman), from the authorities, she becomes his protegé.

In the course of the V investigation, a police officer (Stephen Rea) uncovers dark truths about the origins of the current regime's power and about the elusive V himself. Meanwhile, V continues to murder important Party members and prepares a grand, violent, symbolic gesture to power a revolution.

Although relentless in its condemnation of fascism and of the potential for fascism, the film, like the original comics, does not paint a simple black-and-white picture of good vs. evil. Some good people are Party members. V is as ruthless as he is heroic. Evey can be cowardly and deceitful, just as she can be brave and compassionate. Villains keep their word while heroes lie. And the film never flinches from making the audience feel responsible for allowing such a regime to assume power in the first place, for giving in to fear and intolerance.

Ultimately, the villain is everyperson — the audience. It's everyone's responsibility to be heroic, to not let hatred and ignorance overwhelm us all.

Provocative stuff for a superhero thriller.

Much of V for Vendetta's strength comes from the details: the wry pop-culture references, the moments of resigned desperation, the flashes of unabashed romanticism, the images that remind us that the potential for fascism is still with us, much closer to home than we should be comfortable with.

Visually, the film is stunning: set design, photography, and action choreography are all superb, all perfectly in tone with the unfolding story.

For the most part, the performances of the actors are gripping. The one sour note in this respect, and perhaps in the whole film, is that Natalie Portman is not always equal to the demands of her role, especially during Evey's more emotionally demanding moments.

V for Vendetta is a powerfully effective and affecting film. A few times, I was on the verge of tears; often, I was made nervous and uncomfortable (in a good way); several times, I felt exhilarated.

Near the end of both the comics and the film, in what is perhaps a nod to the conclusion of Patrick McGoohan's allegorical TV series The Prisoner, there comes a surreal and symbolic event in which delusion invades reality, although film and comics diverge on the both the moment shown and the symbolism chosen. The comics ending is sadder and more personal; the film ending is more hopeful and operates at a societal level. That is not to say the film implies that revolution is easy or that its consequences are simple-minded and unambiguous. Far from it. Monstrous ideas breed monstrous acts that in turn breed more monstrous deeds. And that's nothing to celebrate.

But V for Vendetta is a brave, uncompromisingly subversive film, crafted with heart and integrity. And that's something to celebrate.

© 2006 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.