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Put on the mask and let us see
A film review of V FOR VENDETTA by Camus
"I never thought I'd feel so good about the [spoiler] blowing up..."
A fellow cinema-goer leaving the cinema behind me.


I rarely whoop in the cinema. I did about an hour ago.

I read the news. I watch the news. I listen to the news. I accept the news. Co-author of the superb graphic novel V For Vendetta David Lloyd, introduces the work with the words "…it's for people who don't switch off the news." The news is biased (I get this). The news is distorted by the economic and political needs and drives of those in power (I get this too). Control over what is reported is, in this century, almost absolute. The era of a Nixon-crushing Woodward and Bernstein, when a free press was not an oxymoron, is over. As US comic Jon Stewart, host of this year's Oscars confirms; "Capote of course addressed very similar themes to Good Night and Good Luck. Both films are about determined journalists defying obstacles in a relentless pursuit of the truth. Needless to say both are period pieces." That, my friends, absolutely terrifies me. When controlling powers can spin out deceit and believe it in their black hearts then we really are chained, imprisoned with the delusion of a personal freedom. They dare to mock us saying it's God's will - what gross irresponsibility and cowardice our democracies have given birth to. England is creeping to a dark place, lie by lie. America got there quite a few years ago. Add to the mix a poisonous conceit that makes our leaders think they are fulfilling their destinies - as mapped out by God, the invention of an animal that knows it's going to die - and you have powerfully disturbed mindsets that will lead us all to an unimaginably bleak and backward future. Hell, we are already there.

We are sowing the seeds of that future today through ignorance and apathy and too few of us are in the field, plucking those seeds from the earth and encouraging others to do so. One of the best lines from V For Vendetta (and forgive the clumsy paraphrasing) is "Artists lie to reveal the truth. Politicians lie to conceal it." In short, V For Vendetta is a movie that has timed its entrance to perfection and makes all knee jerk liberals like myself cheer at its potent audacity. This is a film about righteousness but it doesn't preach. This is a film about that small part of everyone, the part that recognises nobility and fairness. This is a film about a nut-job in a Guy Fawkes mask who blows things up, poisons and stabs people – so how come I like the character so much? Because I think he's right? That's scary. "Oh, it's all OK. It'll all be alright. Common sense will prevail." No it won't. It never has and never will. Not while ideologies clash violently and the people who lead us have stone-age belief systems forcing them on to a 21st century in what feels like globalised rape. What will prevail is a society that feeds on the exploitation of our basest instincts, our 'us and them' mentality that leads us to see all Muslims as suicide bombers, all Germans as spies for the enemy (time has given us some distance from that) and all different colour-skinned people as not good or inferior – "not us."

Washington has based its policies for five whole years on the simple expedient of keeping a nation in fear. No action, not one, has been taken to understand the terrible cycle of violence and work to make it stop. The only action Bush and co. have taken has been exactly that which perpetuates hatred and more violence. Any simpering idiot can understand that. Why does it so effortlessly evade those we put into power? Yeah, right. It's our fault now. Blair may not be entirely comparable to Vendetta's Adam Sutler (to all intents Hurt is playing a nascent Hitler or Mosely figure – remove the 'am Su' from his name and you have 'Ad tler' – just add 'olf Hi' and you're there). But he has certainly ushered in a political style of Christian belligerence that is such a fertile breeding ground for asymmetrical warfare, he almost convinces me that this was his plan all along. How's this for a statistic. Blair has gone to war, sent British troops to fight (onward Christian soldiers) five times in six years. That is truly a staggering statistic. Please get hold of John Kampfner's superb book Blair's Wars. It will make your jaw drop. The latest of Blair's wars that has rent Iraq asunder (how's that for biblical, TB?) is raging as I write. There is a moment in an episode of Joss Whedon's Firefly where the hero upon meeting the villain gives his opinion on what should be done: "We run. Nothing worse than a monster who thinks he's right with God." And that's where my problem lays. What about a righteous monster whose ideals make so much more sense to me? Enter V.

Hollywood is not effective when it comes to pushing political agendas. It's what I think killed one of the best American films of the last thirty years, Philip Kaufman's ode to astronautic courage The Right Stuff. It was perceived as a huge endorsement for the real astronaut John Glenn who ran for office the year the movie was released. People don't go to movies to be preached at. To quote Oscar host Jon Stewart again after a montage of 'Issue Pictures' showing the world how in touch with reality Hollywood is (oh please); "And none of those problems were ever seen again…" The corporate giants that make up what we perceive as Hollywood will only take on a political movie if they think there's a buck in it. Let's look at Vendetta's movie DNA. Written by the Wachowski brothers (Matrix, tick VG), directed by their protégé, ex-assistant director James McTeigue (uh, OK. But we're sure Larry and Andy will be keeping their eyes on him) and produced by action specialist producer Joel Silver. OK, promising. What staggered me is the faithfulness (it's still London and V remains masked, remains a powerful idea, a metaphor). And the fact we are seeing it distributed at all given the parlous state of international relations and the bombs that keep exploding all over the world is a small miracle.

Within the narrative, there's no American involvement at all as long as you accept Portman's Landahn accent and the fact that a team of gutsy Yanks ploughed money and love into something overtly political. Why did co-author and comic book messiah Alan Moore have his name removed? In short it was his huge disappointment and frustration at previous adaptations From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He felt he had been burned twice and wasn't about to endorse a third flaming. Moore states "They (his stories) were written to be impossible to reproduce in terms of cinema," and that if movies were to be made "…try to make them into better ones!" I would dearly love to hear what Moore thinks of the finished V For Vendetta because it captures the spirit of the graphic novel if not its labyrinthine depth. The movie is made of definable elements taken from the comic (is 'graphic novel' just a silly way to legitimize the evident artistry?) and the ending is a little pat (but then movies need endings that satisfy with a single incontrovertible wallop). The ending's set piece is taken from the start of the source material but no matter. I whooped with joy as this set piece began. Again, a comic is not a movie so I cannot complain about oranges not being apples. But here I don't want to. I love these apples. When Hollywood feeds upon a great work and gets it so gloriously right, there's no better way to deliver an idea to the populace. Agreed, it will change nothing but if one person watches the news more cynically, that has to be a good thing. Yes, V for Vendetta the graphic novel is profound, politically naïve and savvy in equal amounts. It's an extraordinary work that both Alan Moore and David Lloyd should feel proud to have wrought. But there is no way such storytelling is going to survive a Hollywood machine – but its ideas can mutate and live on.

'The idea' is central to the movie version of V for Vendetta. The so called 'terrorist' 'V' is an idea. We never see behind the mask because it is unimportant. What is important is the idea of a catalyst that brings people to their senses. V is Howard Beale (of Network fame). He's the stiff faced caricature who uses violence and destruction to say "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore…" The superb volte-face example of this is John Hurt ranting to a population who are NOT in front of their TVs. They are out on the streets making a difference while their leader reassures with promises of brute force enforcement. "For Your Protection", yeah. Right.

So what's the tale? Set a little way into the future, we are in London, a rapidly spiralling right wing Orwellian society. There are curfews at night. The state owned TV company is a puppet of its masters and the 'enemy' have blighted England with three terrorist acts of violence, incidents of chemical warfare that have kept England in the desperate dark of ignorance and fear. OK, not so far away then. Breaking curfew one evening, a young girl, Evey, is stopped by militia who are about to rape her all night. She is saved by a caped vigilante with a Guy Fawkes mask who has some expertise with knives. He invites her to hear an orchestra from the rooftops, an invitation that culminates in the destruction of the Old Bailey. After making an impassioned broadcast to the nation, V is saved by Evey and so begins a complex but hugely gratifying relationship between a man who wants to do the right thing by specific and violent means and a victim, who, under V's tutelage, will become whole. V gives the powers that be one year before he will emerge again to affect change…

John Hurt is suitably Big Brotheresque (a nice little irony given he played Winston Smith in 1984 in the 80s) and his face is only ever seen, save for one important scene which I will not reveal, on a huge monitor that deliberately frames his cabinet as small men whose heads Hurt could bite off in a second. The nastiest of these, the power hungry, reptilian Creedy, is finely played by Tim Piggot-Smith. The man leading us through V's machinations is the detective Finch, played by Stephen Rea with a light touch. He manages to portray an aching inevitability as information gleaned carefully turns his mind to regard V as a necessary evil. Rea is the moral everyman in the story. After all, we can sympathise with V's arguments but we can't really associate with him. Portman does a good job as Evey (there's a little room for making me completely accept her transformation from someone in fear all the time to someone who loses all fear). Our favourite computer code/Head Elf plays V. Although it's Hugo Weaving's remarkable voice that's only obviously the actor, we are assured that he was under the mask the entire time. He does a terrific job. It's also good to see Stephen Fry as a TV personality who dares to mock the leadership in a Prisoner-inspired revelation on his show. Knowing Fry is a fan of McGoohan's seminal series adds a piquancy to the scene. But something happened watching this movie and more than once. And God, how refreshing it was.

I was moved. I was genuinely carried by the conviction of the storytelling and touched by the plight of the characters. There are a few personal strikes that would not play to anyone else. The first screenplay I ever wrote was about a boy's relationship with an intricate Guy Fawkes guy he made. Fawkes speaks to him, ventriloquist's dummy-like through his guy. The character has always fascinated me. For US audiences, there's a neat little opening featuring Guido himself and his attempts at blowing up Parliament. Note for historical accuracy. Guido Fawkes was racked so badly he could barely stand to be hanged. I have also written a novel (unpublished, quelle surprise) in which a character blows up Big Ben… Resonances.

In short (as SFX magazine said so eloquently) "…comic fans leave your inner purist at the door." V For Vendetta will make you think, scratch that itch of political motivation and give you two solid hours of good old fashioned great story-telling. Oh, and if successful across the pond, V should let loose into the American language one of my favourite words. There is something so correct about the word's construction, its plosive delivery and the withering aspect of its meaning. A young girl sits at her TV. She watches the news. She listens to the news. She does not accept the news.

As the glass teat spews lies to her, she says:

"Bollocks." Priceless.

V for Vendetta

USA/Germany 2005
132 mins
James McTeigue
Grant Hill
Joel Silver
Andy Wachowski
Larry Wachowski
Andy Wachowski
Larry Wachowski
based on characters created by
Alan Moore
David Lloyd
Adrian Biddle
Martin Walsh
Dario Marianelli
production design
Owen Paterson
Natalie Portman
Hugo Weaving
Stephen Rea
Stephen Fry
John Hurt
Tim Piggot-Smith
Rupert Graves
review posted
22 March 2006

Related review
V for Vendetta film review by CNash