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Paradise corrupted
A film review of V FOR VENDETTA by CNash
"Remember, remember, the fifth of November; gunpowder, treason and plot.
I know of no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot."


When science fiction authors write of the future, they stage it in one of three ways – all of which have become archetypes of the genre in recent times. The first is the utopia: either a paradise of technological or philosophical perfection, or a world that is very much like our own, yet peppered with asides and one-liners reassuring us that the problems of today will be cured in the future. Star Trek provides an example of the former; Arthur C Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise gives us the latter. The second archetype is the faux-utopia: the world may seem very much like it is today, but – as most stories built around this vision go – there's something rotten in Denmark. The Matrix provides us with the perfect example of this. The third archetype, and arguably the most popular, is the dystopia. In such a future, the world as we know it has changed terribly. Evil men are in power; there are secret police lurking around every corner; your every action is watched, monitored and stored to later incriminate you in a crime you didn't commit.

One can't comment on a dystopian plot without mentioning the father of them all: George Orwell's now-legendary Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell postulated the inevitable end result of the growing "nanny state mentality," with one stroke defining the archetype and providing us with a dire warning of how not to shape the future. There have been countless variations on Orwell's theme ever since his book was first published in 1949 – its influence ranges from the torture methods employed against Malcolm McDowell's Alex in A Clockwork Orange, to the political systems of sci-fi series Babylon 5.

Enter dynamic directing duo Larry and Andy Wachowski. In 1999, they released The Matrix, their magnum opus; set in a layered faux-utopia upon a nightmarish Terminator-esque future Earth, ruled by machines. It combined two of the most popular aspects of science fiction and set many a benchmark with its innovative (and some might say, trademark) "bullet-time" action scenes. The Matrix worked because it balanced its two defining aspects; aspects that have now almost become the defining characteristic of a Wachowski Brothers film; its breathtaking martial arts and gunplay action, and its philosophical visions of the future.

This balance is precisely the reason why the two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, were critical failures. By splitting the second part of their movie into two full-length features, the Wachowskis were forced to drag out both the philosophy and the fighting, stretching them to lengths that were no longer innovative or thought-provoking, but merely laughable and predictable. The philosophy became cod-philosophy, drawing its ideas inside itself, unable to reconcile them with truly modern visions of the future. And by the time of the sequels' release, in 2003, "bullet-time" had been copied and ripped off so many times that it was no longer as exciting as it had been, when it was first pioneered in 1999. 

So when the Wachowskis announced their intention to make a film version of Alan Moore's critically-acclaimed 1982 graphic novel, V for Vendetta, it was seen by many as a return to form for the duo – casting off the mistakes they'd made with the Matrix sequels and recreating Moore's dark, Orwell-inspired dystopian Britain. Between the releases of the Matrix movies, there had been many attempts to "cash in" on the trilogy's success – first and foremost was Equilibrium, the 2002 Christian Bale movie which married The Matrix's kung-fu action with a classic Orwellian dystopia. Some might say that the Wachowskis have unwittingly popularised the dystopian archetype in science fiction. V for Vendetta, as a contrast to Orwell and to Equilibrium, is not cold and clinical in its vision of the future – instead, it is very much like the world of today, only with certain elements that would strike most present-day viewers as abhorrent.

Firstly, there are the "Fingers", a state-sanctioned Gestapo-like secret police, whose primary task is the apprehension of suspicious-looking citizens in an attempt to pin crimes such as "sedition" and "treason" upon them. These innocent victims are then paraded to the public in Stalin-esque show-trials. Britain also has a curfew; citizens must be in their homes by 10pm on the dot, or they risk becoming a target of the Fingers. Countless signs on walls and vehicles reassure the populace that these curfews are "for your own protection".

The people are manipulated further by the television, the only channel being the BTN – British Television Network – which receives falsified news stories from the government and features the "Voice of London", Lewis Prothero, who acts as a mouthpiece for the government and pontificates about how all of the world's problems are caused by terrorists, Muslims, homosexuals and various other degenerate groups, and how only the power of God and Christianity can save mankind. He stops short of turning into a Christian evangelist, but it's very clear that – as in Escape from LA – Britain has become a partial theocracy. The punishment for possessing a copy of the Qur'an is death. In short, the media tells the people what the government wants them to hear.

In the midst of all this is a man whose only name is V, played by Matrix alumnus Hugo Weaving. Horribly disfigured in a terrible fire many years ago, he wears a Guy Fawkes mask whenever he is to be seen by others. Mimicking the story of the Gunpowder Plot, where in 1605 Guy Fawkes attempted to overthrow the government by destroying the Houses of Parliament, V times all of his major plots to occur on the fifth of November. He destroys the Old Bailey, in the name of justice, and promises that on the next November 5th, he will destroy Parliament and bring down the corrupt government, headed by the perpetually-enraged High Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt).

As a character, V is exquisitely eloquent, an embittered but educated enigma. He is a skilled wordsmith, and loves both alliteration and quoting from various literature – most of all, Shakespeare. He is influenced not only by Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, but also by the title character of The Phantom of the Opera, who also wears a mask to hide his scarred face. V lives in a subterranean archive of forbidden art and music, but instead of playing a piano, he listens to a jukebox. V's favourite film is The Count of Monte Cristo, which has also become his inspiration – he fights with a rapier and knives, never using a gun.

Into the picture comes Evey (Natalie Portman), a young worker at the BTN, who saw her parents dragged away by the Fingers when she was a child. In some ways, her character parallels that of Keanu Reeves' Neo of The Matrix; both he and Evey know that there is something wrong with the world, and yet are powerless to do anything about it until they meet a mysterious "terrorist" who shows them the light. After meeting V in a dark alley, she helps him to escape capture when he tries to destroy the BTN Tower (the real-life BT Tower). Evey is at first horrified by V's nonchalant standpoint that "violence can be used for good", after both witnessing his spectacular and very stylistic "demolition" of the Old Bailey, and when he calmly tells her that he has killed people, and will do so again to achieve his goals. This leads her to run away from him, into the arms of her sympathetic friend Gordon Deitrich (the excellent Stephen Fry), a TV presenter. Eventually, she is captured; she refuses to divulge any information regarding V, who rescues her and releases her into freedom after she loses her fear of death.

V for Vendetta is as much Evey's story as it is V's. It's her emotional journey from toothless outrage at the government for the deaths of her parents, to standing up for herself, being unafraid to take them on and aid V in his plans, with no thought of the repercussions her actions may have upon her life and career. Portman brings her character to life with a fantastically emotional performance.

After the explosive first act, V for Vendetta then follows the reactions of the public, the hunt for V by police chief Finch (Stephen Rea), and the attempts to drown out the growing waves of anarchy by the incandescent Sutler and his "shadow council" of cronies, who put out headline after headline of negative propaganda in order to counteract V's influence on the population. The middle of the film takes place over the course of one year; from one November 5th to another. There's a lot of talking in this middle segment, which at times shows signs of dragging its narrative to bridge the gap between the well-executed action scenes – it's one of the only criticisms I could level against it.

Does V for Vendetta end in V's promised anarchy? To tell more would be to give too much of the plot away; suffice it to say, there are plenty of explosions both in the first and last acts of the movie. It's a little strange to see the destruction of major London landmarks, especially when you realise that these actions are good in the context of the story. In fact, this destruction was cited as the main reason that the release of V was put back to March, from its initial 5th November 2005 release date – after the July 7th bombings, the scenes of this movie would hit too close to home. 

But can V's actions truly be called "terrorism"? There's a fine line between terrorism and political activism, and society tends to draw this line where it sees fit. This is one of the aspects of V for Vendetta that is left for the viewer to decide. Does inspiring opposition to a corrupted government inspire terror, as is the definition of "terrorism"?

As I've mentioned, V's expertly-choreographed destruction of the Old Bailey is very stylish; set to music, V conducts the various stages of his plot as he would an orchestra. Music in V for Vendetta is a mix of classical pieces, 50s-era ballads, and some more modern tracks. In general, it's used well, and I can't fault it. The pyrotechnics – explosions and fireworks – are carried off with grace and flow smoothly. V's action scenes, while not quite Matrix-level, are excellent, employing pseudo-"bullet time" slowdowns and shots of flying knives leaving "echoes" in the air.

The casting is pretty decent. Weaving, as V, owns every scene he's in, delivering his verbose monologues with perfect precision and timing, once again showing that there's more to him than Agent Smith and Elrond. Portman, as mentioned above, is great, especially in her scenes in the prison, while supporting cast members Rea and Fry are superb as always. John Hurt, as High Chancellor Sutler, performs his role with just the amount of arrogance and presence that a dictator needs.

So have the Wachowski Brothers succeeded in maintaining the all-important balance between philosophy and action? For the most part, yes. The middle of the movie sees the characters get very talkative, with most of the action taking place in flashbacks, but the suspense of Evey's incarceration and torture keeps the audience from feeling bored by the lack of ultraviolence. V for Vendetta atones for the Wachowski's and the film studio's earlier mistakes with the Matrix trilogy, and does it with both style and a clear message.

V for Vendetta's final message is that everyone has a little of V inside of them. V is not simply a physical being; he is mankind's way of seeing through the propaganda and realising that things are horribly wrong. He embodies the courage to stand up for what we believe in; to campaign for free speech; to oppose dictatorships and any who would force us to live our lives in constant fear of violence and reprisals. In short, V represents mankind's hope for a better future. Some might say that this is too high a goal to ever reach, that mankind is already halfway along the path towards Nineteen Eighty-Four. I don't think so.

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
19 March 2006

Related review
V for Vendetta film review by Camus