March 16-22, 2006
Movies : ArticleState of Fear
A populist terrorist stalks dystopian London in a clumsy terrorism thriller.
The terrorist at the center of James McTeigue's film (adapted by the Wachowski brothers from Alan Moore's comics) is the most formidable V (voiced by Hugo Weaving and played by Weaving, the canned James Purefoy and various stuntmen). Swirling a black cape and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, V claims inspiration from the Catholic activist who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605. V first appears in a dark alley, where he saves Evey (Natalie Portman) from being raped by grubby cops. She's out after curfew, a dire offense in this post-WWIII police state England, and V dispatches her badge-flashing assailants with elegant knife work and digitized martial arts moves familiar from the Matrix franchise. Repeatedly during the rescue, the camera looks up at a placard displaying the national credo: "Strength Through Unity, Unity Through Faith."
V's mask, of course, hides a terrible and superhero-making trauma having to do with childhood abuse and institutional cruelty: The government regularly incarcerates and tortures minorities, queers and anyone else deemed an "enemy of the state." The film presents a recent history instigated by "America's war," as it's called by occasional television reports (which also show the States' "second civil war" and ongoing unrest in the Middle East and Eastern EuropeSerbia, Iraq and Afghanistan now roundly recognized as imperial projects). "What was done to me was monstrous," V tells Evey, who is appalled by the violence he deploys in response: "And they created a monster."
While the movie allows that torture only reproduces terrorism and violence, it also presents V's own scheme as revolutionary and effectively symbolic. At the start of the film, he explains that he has detonated the Old Bailey "to remind this country of what it has forgotten." Evey knows something about the loss of free speech, as she works at the TV station that broadcasts the proudly conservative "voice of London," Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam), former jackboot cop and pharmaceuticals manipulator. So she's intrigued by V's promise of a new and improved state, where information is accessible and citizens are unafraid.
When V infiltrates the station in order to transmit his threat against the state, Evey helps him escape from well-intentioned cop Finch (Stephen Rea), and in the process, is adopted as his protege. The fact that her activist parents were murdered by the government ("It was like these black bags erased them from the face of the earth") makes her a ready candidate in the most stereotypical way (terrorists and superheroes emerge from the same nightmare backgrounds). But when she resists V's initial nice-guy indoctrination (he makes her tea and eggs for breakfast), she is subjected to more drastic methods: She's locked up, interrogated and tortured for some unknown time, living in a cell with rats and reading the written-on-toilet-paper story of a radiant-in-flashbacks lesbian prisoner, now dead.
Evey's grim education makes her appreciate V's rage and venom. In her eyes, he becomes one of those nominally ambiguous superheroes who is moody, tormented and dedicated to his plan. As usual in such sagas, V's occasional dementia is nothing compared to the patent villainy of his adversariesthe odious Prothero, a bishop who beds young girls, and the secret police, led by the aptly named Chief Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith). All operate under the auspices of Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt, oh-so-cleverly cast as the Big Brother he battled in 1984), who meets with his minions via a boardroom big screen TV and makes public pronouncements on gigantic monitors.
The unsubtle Sutler's sensational special effects underline the film's interest in the ways "truth" is refracted through mirrors, monitors and masks. Distortion is inevitable in this system, sometimes obvious, sometimes referential and sometimes just ham-fisted; a closeted gay man (Stephen Fry) laments, "You wear a mask for so long, you forget who you were beneath it." The film never lets a metaphor speak for itself or lets you forget an image.
Such irritating distrust of the audience to keep up makes V for Vendetta's political and social commentary seem more cartoonish than insightful. Yes, imperialism is really bad, and yes, a reliance on Nazi-ish iconography is a sure sign of a regime's need for change. What's less clear, and could use some reflection, is how V's own violence will or will not produce more victims and vigilantes. "Freedom and justice are more than words," he says. "They are perspectives." And as such, they need rethinking at every step.
V for Vendetta
Directed by James McTeigue A Warner Bros. release Now playing at area theaters