That Daring Young Man with the Mask and the “V”s

Sometime in the not-so-distant future, terrorism and the sudden onslaught of a deadly virus that kills millions indiscriminately inspires widespread panic. This atmosphere of fear allows a totalitarian government to assume control of Great Britain. Trading virtually all of their freedoms away for the promise of a little security, the citizens of Britain are brutally oppressed by the fundamentalist government of Adam Sutler (John Hurt). The lone opponent of Sutler and his cronies is a caped figure sporting a Guy Fawkes mask and calling himself “V.”

It is difficult to know precisely how to approach a discussion of V for Vendetta. On the one hand it is certainly an entertaining film, featuring all of the elements one might expect from a movie based on a graphic novel and written by the Wachowski brothers: fantastic visual effects, mildly intriguing characters, and . . . well, more fantastic visual effects. On the other hand, without a willful suspension of disbelief the plot clearly has more holes than a whiffleball. Additionally, the Wachowskis provide their typical potpourri of literary influences and philosophical ramblings, some of which work well, while others decidedly do not.

One of the more unique elements of the movie is the total anonymity of the main character. V spends the entire movie behind his mask, and viewers never once see his face. Without the help of the credits, most of the audience would never know that the character is played by Hugo Weaving. This requires a great deal of expressive body language from the actor, since he must communicate without the use of facial expressions, and Weaving succeeds admirably. The genteel tone he injects into V’s witty dialogue and his graceful poise create a distinct and compelling personality for V. V is a dark, conflicted character, but he is also sympathetic. Whatever else the film may get right or wrong, it is vital that the title character be done properly, and he is.

V for Vendetta, like its main character, has a great deal of style, but lacks real substance. There are genuinely stirring moments throughout the film, with some fine technical skills on display. V’s opening monologue is littered with a venerable variety of verbage beginning with the letter “v.” The spectacular explosions of V’s terrorist strikes on London are accompanied by the climax of Tchaikovsky’s “Overture of 1812,” to great effect. V’s mansion is overflowing with a pastiche of artifacts from both artistic and popular culture, and he rises to the refined atmosphere with quotes from Shakespeare, an affinity for swordplay and dancing, and a love of jazz and classic film. In one somewhat silly, but visually stunning sequence, V sets and then topples thousands of dominoes in a beautiful pattern, intercut with shots of his various plots and schemes reaching fruition as the movie rushes headlong into its climax. And, in the mandatory final battle he wields two large blades with the greatest of ease (that daring young man with the mask and the “V”s), leaving silver dagger trails in the air as he slaughters the villains.

In terms of spectacle there is much to enjoy. But spectacle alone does not make a great movie. For one thing, the plentiful plot holes that pepper this piece prevent it from proving perfect. If the viewer starts paying too much attention, the entire situation simply stops working. The serious circumstances in England could not possibly develop, V’s exploits are as unrealistic as those of Santa Claus. Even within the framework of the fantastic, the film fails to fully achieve a functional internal feasibility. However, one of the most genuinely grating aspects of V for Vendetta is undoubtedly the transparency of its message. The complete lack of subtlety in the villification of cartoonish religious figures is ludicrous.

One image, shown repeatedly throughout the film, visually equates Adam Sutler’s rise to power with that of Adolf Hitler. The only difference is the symbol. Sutler replaces the swastika with a double cross, a blatantly Christian reference. Strangely, no one in England at the time seems to have noticed the resemblance. The figure known as “The Voice of London” who preaches government propaganda justified by religious faith, is an obvious take-off on American pundits and televangelists. He is a grotesque and egotistical figure, whose private life completely belies his public image. And, of course, no parade of stereotypes would be complete without the perverted priest who nourishes a secret fetish for young girls.

There are some deep philosophical and political considerations lurking just below the surface of V for Vendetta, about the nature of terrorism, the need for security in a free society, and the corrupting influence of power. However, it is difficult to take any of these ruminations seriously when they are buried beneath frivolous (though impressive) action sequences and shallow attacks on fundamentalism and the religious right which are based on an incomplete understanding of the implicit worldviews. Ultimately, while the premise proves preposterous, and the picture preaches pernicious propaganda, there are plenty of pretty pyrotechnics and the protagonist plies points with polish and panache. The permissive public will perceive it as pleasurable despite its plethora of problems. Don’t go looking to learn anything or to “think deep thoughts.” Anyone the Wachowskis can sell on their thesis already has their mind made up before the previews start, and everyone else will just be annoyed by it. If you go at all, go to enjoy the style and the flair.

  • Co-reviewed with Randy

~ by Jared on March 19, 2006.

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