V for Vendetta

Overall Rating: B

In the post 9/11 world, can you imagine a major movie release in which the hero is a bomb planting terrorist/freedom fighter in a life and death struggle with his own government? Just such a bold movie is now in wide release, penned by the Wachowski brothers (Andy and Larry) and directed by their assistant director from the Matrix trilogy, James McTeigue.

V for Vendetta, the first film to be helmed by James McTeigue, stars Natalie Portman as Evey Hammond and Hugo Weaving as V. The movie is set a few decades in the future, in a world where the US has collapsed into civil war and Britain, following a turbulent time referred to as The Reclamation, is now in the hands of one Adam Sutler, played by John Hurt. A strictly religious nationalist, Sutler has turned Britain into a right leaning police state in which dissent and diversity are not tolerated.

Evey Hammond is a young woman who works for a television station who, despite the strictly enforced curfew, ventures out one night only to be accosted by a few men from an organization known as The Fingers. They are meant to enforce order in the society, and like many men with power they abuse it. With Evey they decide to have their way with her, but their plans are violently interrupted by V.

The masked and mysterious V, a lover of Shakespeare with a penchant for alliteration with the letter by which he is known, invites Evey to a show after saving her from the hands of her would be rapists. He takes her to the London rooftops to watch the demolition of the Old Bailey, a project he has illegally carried out himself, though the government later attempts to spin it their own way.

The next day, with the police coming to arrest Evey for her curfew violation which was caught on tape, V breaks in to her television studio and hijacks the broadcast in which he explains to the people of Britain his position, and invites them to watch Parliament explode exactly one year hence, on November 5th, the anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605. Thus is the stage set for a revolution, with the police – led by investigator Finch played by Stephen Rea – after V and Evey, V after Adam Sutler and the entire government, Sutler and his sidekick Creedy (Tom Pigott-Smith) after V and poor Evey caught in between and unsure which way to go.

What most sticks out about V for Vendetta is Hugo Weaving, the infamous Agent Smith from The Matrix Trilogy. Hidden behind a mask, he manages with his perfect voice control and body movement to portray his part with all the nuance and character for which it calls. V is a man scarred both physically and emotionally, and he hides it behind a mask and a cavalier and very literate bravado. Hugo Weaving does the role justice and cements his place on the list of today’s most talented actors. John Hurt, as we would expect, is excellent as the fanatical Adam Sutler, and Natalie Portman also accounts well for herself. Stephen Rea handles his low key role with his usual aplomb, as indeed do most of the actors in the movie, whether their role is large or small.

Most of the technical aspects of the movie, the sound and cinematography for instance, were on par with the acting. Where the movie has its biggest let down is with the director and perhaps the editor (it is at times difficult to say who is at fault if a movie has poor pacing). Though the shots are composed adequately, McTeigue seems to suffer from a lack of rhythm, or perhaps it is patience. Screenwriters are told to enter a scene at the latest possible moment and leave it as soon as possible, which is all well and good, but this advice does not mean that the director needs to rush through things. He must approach a movie like a banquet, knowing when to linger, when to savor, when to build up anticipation, and most of all when to take one’s time. McTeigue does a sufficient job of rendering just what is in the script but adds nothing to the enterprise himself, and he rushes through scenes like he can’t wait to be done with them. Where are the little shots and cutaways? Where is the thoughtful choreography? Where is the unique perspective? Where are the imaginative details that make each scene, or each location, or each interaction unique? Where is the (fill in the blank)? In short, where is anything suggesting that the director is also bringing something to the table, rather than simply setting up a tripod and showing us the actors running through their lines and stage directions?

As for the script itself, it is a strong one. From an artistic standpoint I have no quarrel with it. There are interesting characters, an interesting world and a daring plot which, despite the hero’s pronouncement near the beginning, does not always go where you expect it to. Furthermore, the screenwriters give their scenes some unique flourishes, which are necessary in light of the fact that much of V’s work in between the two November 5th’s is comprised of his revenge on individuals who have grossly wronged him. This could get very repetitive if the Wachowski brothers let it.

My only quibbles with the script are not really artistic in nature. I find myself a bit reluctant to criticize an endeavor valiant enough to be what it is in this post 9/11 world, but there are, for those of us with a strong libertarian spirit, some problems. For one, the movie is a bit simplistic in portraying the British society as one in which the government is against the citizens. As Ludwig von Mises, the great Austrian Economist, pointed out, governments always and everywhere exist with the tacit approval of a critical mass of their citizens. It is never simply a case of the government/slash army lording it over the poor civilians. And when revolutions occur, they are generally chaotic affairs in which each revolutionary fights for his own reasons, and many may find the decision difficult. For every man sick of paying a tax on tea, for instance, there is another who enjoys the monopoly in, say, shipping which the government has granted him. For every woman who yearns to express her sexuality openly there is another who is glad it is being repressed. These finer details, in a script which, with the main characters at least, proves itself nuanced enough for these fine points, could have added much depth to a story which is after all, about a revolution.

Another complaint I had was that the movie comes from a very left/libertarian point of view, while I would have preferred a more balanced libertarianism. Rightfully so, the movie shows how police states cannot allow freedom of speech lest they start to lose the war of ideas, or control. Rightfully so, it deals with governments using fear to keep control. Rightfully so, it shows the persecution of unpopular minorities, such as homosexuals. It’s wonderful to see these themes dealt with in a major motion picture. But what of the conservative concerns? Every government bent on dominating its people takes its guns away. Hitler, for instance, disarmed the Jews before he really started abusing them. There is only one brief point made on this topic, and its intent turns out to be a bit vague. No mention is made of taxes, though every repressive regime in history sought every way possible to take as much of what its citizens earned as they could. Our own American Revolution, though far more complex than the event which sparked it, began with a protest on a three penny per pound tax on tea. An inclusion of more typically conservative concerns would have added much to the movie.

For someone of a strong libertarian persuasion, this film may well serve as a personal rallying cry as well as a satisfying tale. For others, it will be seen as glorifying terrorists. The movie itself is quite good for all its flaws, but this point could well be lost as political interests line up to denounce it or acclaim it. For my money, I haven’t yet had a better time at the theater this year.

The Upside:
Strong acting and a very solid script. The technical aspects are in line with the best industry standards.
The Downside:
The script might have delved more into the nature of revolutions as well as presented more concerns from the right. The directing was achingly ordinary for a movie with so much potential.
On the Side:
The author of the original graphic novel on which the movie is based, Alan Moore, refused to be associated with the project and had his name removed from the credits.

Making the Grade:
The Story: A-
The Acting: A-
Behind the Scenes: C
Overall: B

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