Tuesday, March 21, 2006

"V" for Valiant; "P" for Predictable


directed by James McTeigue
starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, John Hurt, others

For a movie that has all the ingredients for controversy, “V for Vendetta” is surprisingly bland.

Which is not to say that it’s boring. It’s actually quite watchable as dystopic flicks go, and I’m a fan of dystopic flicks—even when they lean too heavily on Orwell, Huxley, and/or Philip K. Dick. This one favors Orwell, in a big way, although most of the people in “V for Vendetta” look better fed and furnished than the non-elite citizens of “1984.” It’s the polished, prettified version of Orwell’s nightmare, with a more rousing climax—if you buy into the movie’s ideology, that is.

This involves accepting that the hero (he’s not quite dark enough to be an anti-hero, though some may disagree) must and does employ terrorist tactics to free an oppressed society from the chains of its totalitarian regime. “V for Vendetta” steers us to that conclusion by unfolding from the perspective of a young Eve/rywoman, aptly named Evey and adequately, if not brilliantly, played by Natalie Portman. The year is 2020, and England is dominated by a fascist Big Brother figure (John Hurt, who’s come a ways since playing Winston Smith in “1984”) and, behind the scenes, his fish-faced cabinet. Conformity, censorship, curfews, and government-manufactured news are the order of the day, as is round-the-clock (if somewhat spotty) surveillance of every citizen’s private home. Despite these restrictions, most people seem to lead fairly tranquil, comfortable lives, and Evey, who works for a London television broadcast station, is no exception—until one night (the 4th of November, to be precise), when she breaks curfew and is unfortunate enough to run into some very nasty secret police.

Fortunately, however, she is delivered from a fate worse than death by a man in black (Hugo Weaving, whose face we never see), sporting a Guy Fawkes mask and remarkably elegant diction. He calls himself “V” and invites her to a self-orchestrated concert—an explosion, set against Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” that utterly demolishes the Old Bailey. This, he informs her and, in due course, the British public, is his opening salvo in a war against a government that lied to its people, bound them through fear, and must be overthrown. In a hijacked television broadcast (which reminded me of nothing so much as John Galt’s radio address in Atlas Shrugged), V promises that in a year’s time, in honor of Guy Fawkes Day, he will blow up the Houses of Parliament, and invites all of England to join him for the occasion. (The movie was originally slated for release last November, but pushed back after the subway bombings in London.) A year passes, during which Evey struggles to decide where her loyalties lie, while the reigning powers frantically attempt to track down their mortal enemy. Deployed on the latter mission is a police inspector (a nicely weary Stephen Rea) and his second (a still-boyish Rupert Graves), who begin to uncover some highly unsettling truths about their government, and V’s personal motives, in the course of their investigations.

“V for Vendetta” is based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore, though the famously crotchety Moore disassociated himself from the film (perhaps burned once too often after the hack-job Hollywood made of his “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”). By all accounts, the film—written by “Matrix” scribes Larry and Andy Wachowski—softens the main character quite a bit, and plays down the anarchism that lies at the root of his credo. At the same time, in updating the book (which was written some 20 years ago, in response to Thatcherite England of the ’80s) for the present times, the filmmakers ratchet up its eerie resonances with today’s most pressing political debates and headlines. Secret prisons and scenes of torture? Check. A government that spies on its citizens, does so in the name of security, and fans fears of terrorists, epidemics, and gays? Check, check, and check. But the film doesn’t really do very much with its topicality other than throw it up there on the screen, in some admittedly searing images and sound bytes that will ring sadly familiar with those who get their news from the so-called liberal media. At times, it also seems to be reaching for deeper symbolic resonances of the mythic-religious persuasion—which is par for the course for the Wachowski brothers—but again, those themes are just there, inert, not developed in any particular direction or depth. The same goes for the “Phantom of the Opera”esque bond that builds between V and Evey; when one of them finally makes a declaration, the only proper response is: well, duh.

Some might argue that “V” isn’t a political tract or a love story; it’s an action movie, or a superhero thriller. Except that it isn’t even that, either: the pure action sequences are few and widely spaced, and each turn of the plot is telegraphed well in advance, so the movie doesn’t really pack any surprises. (The visuals, however, are nifty, especially the use of the Guy Fawkes masks.) The movie is primarily focused on V’s brand of freedom fighting: what it means, what it requires, and what brought it into being, all delivered with the same expository heavy-handedness that marred “The Matrix.” However, “The Matrix”—at least, the first one—was able to blend its bits of Philosophy 101 with a more unpredictable narrative and far more dynamic action sequences that embodied the movie’s ideas rather than providing a momentary break from them. “V for Vendetta,” for its part, tries valiantly to be a thinking man’s action movie—but in the end, it doesn’t provide anything very memorable in the way of either thoughts or action.



Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

Actually that police inspector was played by Stephen RHEA of "Crying Game" fame. Stephen FRY played Evey's boss.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

Sorry. His name was Stephen REA, not RHEA. My bad...

3:32 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

Thanks, that was a slip on my part. Teach me to write these things past 2 am. :-)

3:51 PM  

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