Alisa and I saw V for Vendetta last night, and it’s a good film. Should you see it? Absolutely. It’s thought provoking, doesn’t shy away from shooting over the audience’s head to get them to think, and is a resolute exploration of an idea rather than a plot or characters. I want to make that clear first, because it’s also a very ’inaccurate’ adaptation of the comic, and I’m having a hard time seeing past that. The first time I read V for Vendetta was around ’96 or ’97 and I’ve read it many times since, so my vision of the tale is fairly calcified. To truly see the film on its own merits, I’ll probably need to see it one or two more times. Having said that, I have to sympathize with the comic’s author Alan Moore and assert that the movie is not as good as comic, but only if you believe the difference in medium does not prevent comparing the two. I’ll try to give it a fair look here. But, for me right now, most of the movie’s strengths become its weaknesses when compared to Moore’s original. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The Wachowski brothers, the writers of the screenplay, are clearly big fans of comics and very skilled filmmakers. I’d also argue that the same is true for the director, James McTeigue. But their love of action choreography clouded their ability to stay as focused on V for Vendetta‘s purpose as I expected. This isn’t to say that the story’s themes aren’t well-developed or multi-layered, but they sometimes lose their primacy in the film as we marvel at V’s super-human ability to cut throats and throw knives. Normally, I’d love this type of fight choreography and brutal frankness, but in the context of this story, it comes off as extraneous misdirected energy in the name of self-indulgence (albeit very cool-looking self-indlugence).
This stylistic jaunt dovetails with the thorough re-contextualizing of the tale from a dirty, unpleasant, and more desperate vision of Britain to a more stable, fairly fascist, modern Britain, which changes the grain of the entire tale. The film eschews some of its internal consistency and distinctness for contemporary relevance, stylistic streamlining, and a more direct connection with the film’s greatest audience: the well-fed, mildly disconcerted, middle class public. The original began its serial run in 1982, in the context of a Britain seeing Thatcherism obliterate its manufacturing base and hammer the unions, and a rise of military patriotism as a result of the retaking of the Falklands, among other things. Since that time the U.K. hasn’t quite become a police state, but the face of global politics has changed dramatically and terrorism is a little less abstract for many. I’m still undecided about this change in the story’s context, but the result is a marked difference in one of the primary characters, Evey.
Evey, as played by Natalie Portman, is a strong young woman with a past she mentally shadows to function in a harsh but very familiar life. She has seen the dark jackboots stomping on humanity but through re-education and no reason to see an alternative, she does not resist her government. She has every reason to be an outsider and a resister, but she doesn’t believe she has the strength to do as her parents did. Her determination is focused on integrating in the society that surrounds her, not changing it. Her helpless vulnerability of personality is taken out, most likely because modern viewers would have a harder time sympathizing with her, even if it diminishes the dramatic character development somewhat.
Her relationship with the masked terrorist protagonist V is much less steady than the comic’s version, as she is less desperate and dependent. This works well to represent the ways in which we avoid defending our own liberties in the face of security and a desire not to fall on the wrong side of the government’s favors, and avoids a straw man scenario. As a result, V is written as a more conflicted character and one whose warmth and humanity are more readily apparent from underneath the mask. This creates a more sympathetic and perhaps realistic character, but also diminishes the relentlessness of his status as an idea, rather than a man. This is yet another trade-off made by the film, one which sometimes results in a bit more plot exposition and explanation than I would have liked. If we see V as a man with conflicts, the Wachowskis decided that we also need to have his motives laid bare, often via monologue (see The Matrix trilogy). This simplifying of the tale is also a concession made to the removal of many of the story’s subplots and more meaningful characters.
The government heads and key players in the film are involved in their own interwoven machinations, giving them an inherent instability, many of which are unique to the film. The fictional British government is reaching the point of Hitler’s Third Reich as he became more and more disconnected from reality and his blind zealotry directly contributed to his military downfall. The metaphor of the dominoes is even more apt in the film, as V simply lines up the already precarious characters and gives a push. This internal instability is an amplified version of the comic’s government, which V dismantles to jar the citizens of Britain into seeing the truth. The pieces in the film felt more ready to fall, though that’s debatable I guess.
The one area that bothered me most, and will probably continue to, is their focus on V’s superhuman abilities. Many will dismiss this as a concession to the nature of the comic book, but in this case that feels like a shield for movie sensationalism. V’s heightened reflexes and extraordinary strength were barely even tertiary plot elements, merely devices to explain how he could maneuver so deftly around a dominating force. They were elements of the monster that allowed it to reap vengeance on its creators, not what made him admirable or even necessarily able to resist his government. There’s a sequence towards the end of the film that takes an almost obscene glee in gouts of jugular spray and crunching necks, and it really just has no place in the story. Oh, it’s superbly done, no doubt, and it builds the drama in the arc of the scene. But in the context of the film’s message, making the whole thing indirect, only showing what was necessary to communicate V’s speed and deftness at killing (which was the point) would’ve served the story much better. I can see the argument for a “live by the sword, die by the sword” message in the scene, but it just read as a distracting indulgence to me.
For better or worse, the decision was made to aim the story more directly at its consumers and as a result, the original had to be overhauled from front to back. Relevancy was often chosen over realism, and the structure of the film forms a much more definite and clean arc than the comic. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with many of the changes until the film’s crescendo and climax, where reality was pretty much thrown out in favor of the purity of metaphor and theme. I admit that while I would’ve rather seen the film grapple with the more open-ended tale of the original, the climax certainly made its point in an beautiful and moving manner. I was moved by the image. In that, restored my faith that I could watch the film a second time and love it for what it is: a lush and stylized delivery of a significant message.
All told, particularly if you haven’t read the comic, V for Vendetta is a worthy film and a very engaging one, faults aside. It was, in its way, a missed opportunity, but it’s still a pretty bold move on its own merits. There’s a bit of straw-manning and slight of hand going on so we don’t consider what it’s like for an enforcer of the law to be caught in this conflict, as they are cut down left and right with little compunction. But when one acts in service of an idea, people can sometimes become secondary, and this is actually a secondary message of this film, one that I would’ve loved to see addressed more head-on: these revolutions often make monsters out of both sides in pursuit of their ideals. Both the government and V use brainwashing techniques and violence to achieve their ends, and both cause the death of innocents directly or indirectly. So in spite of the obvious message of the film, I believe there’s a more fundamental and perhaps more significant and controversial question riding along with it the whole way through: can any movement or government truly affect change or exert control without terrorism? And if so, is freedom truly possible? Watch the film to see its answer.
MPAA Review: Strong violence and some language.
Ad Exec Reviews: Remember, remember the 5th of November; An uncompromising vision of the future from the creators of ’The Matrix’ trilogy; People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people; Freedom! Forever!