WFTB Score: 6/20
The plot: In a fascistic, dictator-led Britain, a single-minded terrorist/freedom fighter known as ‘V’ promises to bring down the ruthless government of Chancellor Sutler on the anniversary of November 5th. A young woman called Evey becomes unwillingly entwined in the masked man’s personal quest for revenge on those who disfigured him years ago.
Great Britain in the near future is not a great place to live if you’re ‘different’: for ever since the outbreak of a virus that killed close to 100,000 people, the populace has struggled under the extreme right-wing leadership of Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt), bolstered by the propaganda machine of the British Television Network and the rabid moralising of the ‘Voice of London’, Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam). Her political parents having fallen victim to the regime, BTN employee Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) keeps her head down and tries to stay out of trouble, but an encounter with thuggish ‘fingermen‘ results in her rescue by the mysterious V (Hugo Weaving), a vigilante with a Guy Fawkes mask and a burning vengeance against those in power.
V takes Evey to his underground lair and reveals himself to be educated and cultured, but he cannot resist his desire for revenge: firstly, because the country’s leaders were personally responsible for the physical and mental scars he gained at Larkhill internment camp; and secondly, because he wants the population as a whole to rise up behind his ideas of liberty and fairness. Evey takes fright and runs to her gay friend Gordon Deitrich (Stephen Fry), but after an ill-advised broadcast his house turns out to be a poor sanctuary. Meanwhile, weary police Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) is nominally in charge of hunting down the elusive V, but as the masked man picks off his targets and Finch delves ever deeper into history, he begins to wonder whether – come the next fireworks night – it might not be better for Britain if the new Fawkes carries out his threat.
Now then. Unlike our violent, verbose vigilante, I may not be entirely polite with what I have to say, so I’ll start with the positives of V For Vendetta. The film is written, not directed, by the Wachowskis*, but its style – if not budget – is very reminiscent of the Matrix trilogy. The few action-centric moments are executed quite well, with a form of ‘knife-time’ replacing The Matrix’s much-copied Bullet Time; and throughout there’s a half-decent idea about the power of democracy, how ideas can change the world if taken up by the populace with sufficient conviction. V’s backstory is also vaguely touching, and he does put together a neat – if unnecessarily theatrical – domino display.
Unfortunately, that’s about it for the positives. For all its highfalutin ideas, V for Vendetta constantly hamstrings itself by coming across as utterly fake or requiring great leaps of faith in the film’s logic. Let’s start with the premise that the original Fawkes was a freedom fighter who wanted November 5th to be remembered for the notion that fairness, justice and freedom are more than words – well, if you’re not British and know nothing of the events of 1605, fine, but if (like me) you are British this is just the first of a heap of distracting incongruities.
There’s the unconvincing families and pub punters reacting to the TV, or the constant peppering of ‘bollocks’ and ‘bloody’ in the frankly abysmal script which has Portman trying to make sense of ‘Are you like a crazy person?’ in one of her first lines. Elsewhere, whole scenes fail to ring remotely true – I’m thinking particularly of the witless, humourless ‘satire’ of Gordon’s Benny Hill-inflected chat show; given the totalitarianism of the government, I find it hard to credit that Gordon would ever believe that he’d get off with a slapped wrist.
Worse than the script’s words or scenes, though, is its structure, which makes the problems of Weaving being unable to emote fully through his mask (he sounds very much like Rowan Atkinson), or Portman fully through her over-pronounced vowels, seem like small fry. The plot unwinds through Finch’s investigations into V’s origins, and whether from the drab writing or Stephen Rea’s soggy performance, it all feels like a long-winded damp squib without energy or a motor, V’s dispatching of the authority figures that the Wachowskis plainly mistrust not feeling remotely as exciting as Neo’s adventures in the Matrix; or those of Leon, the shadowy assassin from Natalie Portman’s feature debut.
In the middle of V for Vendetta, Evey is taken prisoner and subjected to brutal treatment by her captors, a trial only interrupted by the soul-baring biography of her lesbian neighbour Valerie (played in flashback by Natasha Wightman). For me, the passage slows the movie down still further to little effect (other than to bolster the writers’ apparent lesbian fixation), but it’s a nice glimpse into the past.
However, the reveal of who has incarcerated Evey highlights the huge liberties the film takes with our suspension of disbelief: how on earth does V operate the prison on his own, without ever showing his face to his prisoner? Why are his hands seemingly unscarred when shaving her hair? Once you start asking these questions, it’s difficult to stop: I’d like to know how, in such an oppressive regime, V has the freedom and resources to buy, import and distribute a cool half-million masks and capes to the general public – but I’ll admit I’m looking for reasons to nitpick.
Whenever I see the title V for Vendetta, I’m tempted to think of a series of a movie series it could slot into: D for Dilemma, P for Pancetta, U for Umbrella, N for Novella. The thought comes into my head because I just can’t take the film seriously. It portrays a Britain that fails to resonate with any sort of reality (hey, I’m no friend of the Conservative Party, but even I take offence at the notion of Sutler’s fascism growing out of Toryism) and limps along under Finch’s lumbering sleuthing to a conclusion that is visually impressive but makes little sense (having achieved his destiny, there’s absolutely no need for V to blow up the Mother of Parliaments). V for Vendetta is a moderately interesting pose, but underneath the pretensions of the Wachowskis’ script it really hasn’t got a clue what it’s talking about. For an intelligent, modern take on 1984, bypass this nonsense and go straight to Terry Gilliam’s wonderfully cynical Brazil.
NOTES: Based on Alan Moore’s novel, of course, though I couldn’t tell you how closely.