Many may have dismissed V for Vendetta (2006) as yet another film adaptation of a graphic novel with a vaguely ridiculous title. However the film deals with far more complex issues than your average comic book movie fare. The story itself was developed from a series of engaging, multi-layered graphic novels published in Britain in the 1980s, during a time when there was renewed focus on George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four; when Margaret Thatcher’s government appeared to many liberals to be taking some liberties with the concept of personal freedom.

Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, the comics caught the eye of Matrix trilogy writers and directors the Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry. As anyone who has seen The Matrix knows, the Wachowskis can make some exhilarating and visually stunning films, but as anyone who has seen The Matrix’s two sequels, they can also make some truly terrible ones. Perhaps thankfully the brothers chose not to direct but to write and produce V for Vendetta and instead supported long-time collaborator but first-time director James McTeigue in their quest to bring the story to the big screen. Many would be slightly dubious about allowing a relatively inexperienced director to helm such a technically complex, big budget production but McTeigue handles it all commendably. 

Writer and co-creator of the graphic novels Moore refused to be in any way involved in the film’s development, quite understandably so when you consider some of the ineffective adaptations his other work has suffered – From Hell, The Extraordinary League of Gentlemen and the successful but ultimately vacuous Constantine. Illustrator Lloyd on the other hand offered his full cooperation and aided in the development of the overall visual appearance of the film. The movie is visually spectacular, with the particularly memorable image of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament exploding to the sounds of classical music as fireworks fill the night sky.

The story is based on the Orwellian concept of a totalitarian regime ruling Britain, lead by a Big Brother figure. In this dystopian vision of the future open homosexuality or owning a copy of the Koran could mean torture and death by government forces, rationing is in place, public curfews are imposed, there are ‘black lists’ of banned songs and government officials randomly eavesdrop on family conversations and phone calls. Secret government police- ‘fingermen’- enforce parliamentary decrees through brute force as political activists and those who refuse to conform are dragged from their homes in the middle of the night and never seen again. The fulfilment of the government’s slogan: ‘Strength through Unity. Unity through Faith’ depends on spin-doctors controlling the media and fabricating news stories of epidemics to scare people into desperately turning to their government in the hope of salvation. Images of political campaigners rioting as armed police struggle to contain the fury of the protestors and control the pandemonium on the streets are familiar to us all but appear even more terrifying in V for Vendetta as we see it as part of a larger culture of barely controlled chaos.

The titular hero V is a mysterious masked lone revolutionary fighting the oppressive regime. He is an almost Shakespearean figure, with his tragic flaw of an unquenchable desire for vengeance. V bases his persona on the ideas propagated by Guy Fawkes in the seventeenth century – that an act such as blowing up a government building could serve to inspire the masses to question the authority and actions of their government. V proclaims: ‘People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.’ He wishes to show people that ‘fairness, justice and freedom are more than words’ and hopes that through his explosive demonstrations the public will find the strength and inspiration to ultimately overthrow the government.

Hugo Weaving appeared previously as the iconic Agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy and faces an incredible challenge in V for Vendetta as the eponymous V – how exactly does one communicate the thoughts and emotions of a character through a mask? Weaving excels in this regard, with his deep theatrical voice conveying the complexities of this troubled and troubling figure. Dramatic and expressive yet tortured and tragically remote, fond of verbose and convoluted monologues – V is not your typical comic book hero.

Natalie Portman plays Evey Hammond, a young woman who V rescues from being raped by a group of government ‘fingermen.’ Struggling to deal with the deaths of her entire family at the hands of the government, Evey learns more about herself and becomes V’s unlikely ally as he teaches her about his cause. Although many may be initially sceptical about Portman’s acting abilities, it must be said that she progresses well along with her character. While some may be left cold by her attempts at emotionality, she provides an adequate sounding board for V’s dramatic monologues. The love story that inevitably develops between them is something that I must admit to struggling with, as Portman never truly conveys the depth and complexity of a love that Weaving can capably portray through a mask.

The mask itself, a twisted, smiling representation of Guy Fawkes, certainly takes some getting used to, and I found myself constantly searching for any expression in the black painted eyes of the mask. The concept of never revealing one’s face throughout a film would undoubtedly be difficult for most actors to deal with but clearly Weaving has no egotistical qualms. The mask forces viewers to considers V’s thoughts and motivations more deeply as we cannot rely on facial expressions or any indications given by the eyes. The mask imprisons V but as an actor it liberates Weaving, allowing him to develop his physical and vocal delivery to add depth and charisma to a truly unique character.

Weaving and Portman are supported by an impressive cast, including John Hurt as dictator Chancellor Sutler, a tyrannical Big Brother figure who communicates only through a television screen and whose picture hangs in every home. Scenes depicting Sutler surrounded by red and black flags, beating his fists in the air and bellowing from a podium serve to drive home the message of the dangers of allowing a totalitarian regime to take hold of a country. Stephen Fry appears as a warm and charming gay television entertainer. Stephen Rea is excellent as Finch, a driven police inspector intent on capturing V who uncovers a horrifying truth about the basis of governmental control over the populace. Sinéad Cusack also gives an outstanding performance as a doctor haunted by her past.

The film is set in the near future, in a time when the US has become a place of extreme poverty and disease partly as a result of a catastrophic war it waged on an unnamed country. Many will roll their eyes at the Wachowskis’ attempts at political commentary, but had they ignored the chance there would have been an equal amount of people complaining about a wasted opportunity to turn the spotlight on world events. Harrowing scenes of human experimentation in prison camps and mass graves evoke images of WWII and appear to challenge the viewers’ perceptions that such atrocities could never happen again. The film warns against institutionalised prejudice, especially against homosexuality. The exaggerated and frequently fabricated news stories presented on television may also constitute an attack on conservative members of the media and in particular the American TV station Fox and its frequently maligned reporting on the Iraq War. The film’s basic message is that of tolerance, but it is presented in such an entertaining manner that it never feels as though we are being preached to. This film is high
ly recommended for anyone tired of forgetting the latest blockbuster immediately after leaving the cinema, because V for Vendetta’s ideology and explosive finale will stay with you long after the credits roll.

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