(director: James McTeigue; screenwriters: Andy & Larry Wachowski/based on the graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd; cinematographer: Adrian Biddle; editor: Martin Walsh; music: Dario Marianelli; cast: Natalie Portman (Evey), Hugo Weaving (V), Stephen Rea (Chief Inspector Finch), John Hurt (Chancellor Sutler), Stephen Fry (Gordon Dietrich), Tim Pigott-Smith (Creedy), Rupert Graves (Dominic), Roger Allam (Lewis Prothero); Runtime: 131; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Joel Silver/Grant Hill/the Wachowski Brothers; Warner Brothers Pictures; 2006-UK)

“Osama must be smiling in his cave!”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A tasteless popcorn film that gets carried away with its irresponsible attempt at interpreting history and takes itself far too seriously, as it piously extols anarchism and preaches revolution against an evil Orwellian government is okay even if it’s spearheaded by a terrorist bent on a violent solution–someone who is pictured as mentally unbalanced, without a name, and as an effete masked avenger who is an expert in bomb-making, combat and throwing knives (How very Matrix-like!). The film’s suicide bomber hero is proclaimed as a figure of revolt for those who are oppressed (Osama must be smiling in his cave!). The movie’s release was sensibly moved back after the London Underground bombings, after it was scheduled to open on the exact day of Guy Fawkes’s revolutionary act 400 hundred years ago.

Shooting for all the hype it can get by flirting with controversial reminders to America’s dangerous current political climate over the so-called War on Terrorism, it should energize those who love conspiracy theories and those who love their politics drawn out in comic book form. It should also antagonize warmongering Bushies, advocates of America’s freedom inhibiting Patriot Acts, many in England who like their Parliament to stand in one piece no matter what and those peaceniks who don’t find it amusing that violence is seen as the only means to peace. It’s written by the Wachowski Brothers and based on the early 1980’s graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd and written by Alan Moore (the legendary comic writer Moore has disassociated himself from the film, objecting to the changes made as bastardizing his more literary output and reducing the story to “rubbish”); it’s stylishly (released in IMAX theaters) shot and directed by first-timer James McTeigue, who served as assistant director on the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix films.

V patterns himself after both the dashing fictionalized 19th-century revenge-minded wrongly imprisoned Count of Monte Cristo as taken from the 1934 movie that starred Robert Donat and the fanatical historical figure of Guy Fawkes, the chief villain of the legendary Gunpowder Plot. Fawkes is the Catholic dissident who along with his co-conspirators failed in their attempt on November 5, 1605 to blow up the English Parliament with barrels of gunpowder they buried underneath it. They were all hanged. In a mock celebration of the revolutionary act there are still those in merry old England who honor his memory every November 5th on Guy Fawkes Day by burning him in effigy.

The film is set after the fall of the United States in a totalitarian London of the near future, in 2020, where the tyrannical government is run by a Hitler-esque Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt), who came to power by framing terrorists for spreading germ warfare (those who foolishly think Bush planned the 9/11 attack to keep his failing presidency will identify with this plot point). The corrupt arrogant government is feared by everyone, with the media censored, pleasures such as music, paintings and even butter banned, as is the Koran and gay romances, and all the usual things fascist governments outlaw to maintain control over their subjects. Only government run TV seems to be intact, as an opium for the people.

On the evening of November 4th, during a curfew, a mysterious character donning a devilish smiling Guy Fawkes mask named V (Hugo Weaving) suddenly appears on a darkened back street in London and rescues the fair maiden Evey (Natalie Portman) from a rape by slicing up two thuggish secret policemen. Unsure of how to think of her weird rescuer, the apolitical Evey gets talked into joining V on his evening stroll where he promises to make music (he would later say that a revolution without music is not worth having, which happens to be the film’s most poignant statement). But first V takes over the airwaves and voices his rejection of this totalitarian regime and urges the citizens not to be afraid to revolt. He also threatens to destroy Parliament on the following November 5th. But first he blows up the “Old Bailey,” London’s central criminal building, to the tune of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”

With this anarchist threat, the Chancellor has a hissy fit and orders his Gestapo chief Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith) and his more sensitive Chief Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) to hunt down V before the following 5th of November. Evey, an unassuming gofer for the national Brit TV station, is linked to V and is forced to go on the run. She hides out in V’s underground digs, a stuffy museum type of pad that has banned movie posters, a Francis Bacon painting (What else!) and a Wurlitzer jukebox. It’s discovered V’s favorite tune is Julie London’s “Cry Me a River.” Who else but a Guy Fawkes clone would pick such a tune to kvell over? It’s also discovered that Evey’s writer parents became political activists and were snuffed out in a police raid. During the course of the year Evey, the only real person in the story a viewer can identify with, goes through a Joan of Arc change as she’s imprisoned and has her head shaved to look like Falconetti, who played the saint in Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”

Other noteworthy characters are a foaming with hatred government insider and staunch defender named Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam), a Rush Limbaugh figure, if you will, who is known as the Voice of London. His political and TV opposite is the affable Gordon Dietrich (Stephen Fry), the secretive gay subversive and popular chat show host who comically mocks the Chancellor on one of his shows and finds the last laugh is on him.

It was difficult to take this film seriously as radical fare; but it was difficult to also laugh it off as just another blockbuster multiplex thriller since it glorifies violence to such a large extent without taking responsibility that if its bogus viewpoint was to be accepted as anything but just another dumb movie how damaging it would be. Beautiful to look at, but vapid as far as characterizations (Weaving is wasted in a role where he’s never seen and Portman, whose English accent seems to just come and go at will, is too frail to carry the film) and narrative (a turgid tale built on revenge with CG explosives being its main staple). It left me with the chilling feeling that the filmmakers think so little of people (their audience) that they think the world is made up only of terrorists, fascists, perverts, a sheep-like public or confused citizens who don’t know how to overcome their fear to bring about change through intelligent means. Its call for “power to the people” seemed naive and hardly thought out. It tries so hard to be self-important that the only thing I found entertaining is that these pulp filmmakers think they’re heavy dudes making with some big philosophy when all they’re doing is making lots of noise and pretending to be subversives. Furthermore, the film is tedious in parts much like the two Matrix sequels. Some critics have said it will fuel debate by raising such provocative issues, but I don’t see it fueling debate as much as raising emotions in a hate radio talk show kind of way. As far as I’m concerned, this film was so heavy-handed in its muddled message leaving no wiggle room for debate–it’s pure hokum to think of this terrorist as a freedom fighter, no matter how the Brothers or some critics try to cut it.

V for Vendetta