V For Vendetta (R) ***

Released: 2006
Studio: Warner Brothers
Director: James McTeigue

Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea

By Eileen Peterman

The dearth of quality entertainment at the cinema finally ends with the release of the much anticipated latest comic book to make it to the big screen V for Vendetta. There has been a lot of buzz generate around this film mainly because its star, Natalie Portman, had her hair shaved off on film for one of the significant scenes and Portman has spent the awards season wandering Hollywood looking like G.I. Jane. Of course any publicity is good publicity and this will probably pay off well for the film.

Hopefully I am not the only person who cannot now hear the word Vendetta without thinking of Sideshow Bob’s Italian toddler son wielding a kitchen knife and shouting “vendetta, vendetta” from last season’s Simpsons. But it is unlikely to ruin every use of the word and has little bearing on enjoyment of the film.

The Wachowski Brothers of Matrix fame bring the popular comic about a future that is both English, totalitarian, and yet not as grim and dark and messy as the one imagined in The Matrix series. Perhaps this is because the comics as defined by Alan Moore and David Lloyd have a slightly different feel than the universe created by the Wachowski’s. The fear is more of man than machine and there are some heavy 1984 themes about the role of government in people’s lives that were really not addressed in the political vacuum of the warring Matrix series. Plus there is a hidden history message here, thanks to Moore a whole new generation knows something about Cromwell England and Guy Fawkes’ failed attempt to blow up Parliament.

As comic book heroes go this one is fairly literary and high-minded borrowing heavily from Dumas’ The Count of Monte Christo, which even gets a mention and a viewing of the 1934 UA film starring Richard Donat, and from the concern inspiring 1984. The future is a fairly scary place with massive terrorist strikes with biological weapons wiping out massive amounts of the population and an egomaniacal tyrant coming to power to stabilize the government. The central question of the film is, how much freedom is a people willing to give up to feel safe and secure from the evils of the world.

It is interesting how timely this film has become. Though the comics were written in the 80s about Thatcher England they ring very true today in GW Bush’s United States. The idea that fear breeds totalitarian states and megalomaniacal leaders does not seem so far fetched in a post-9/11 world. And the idea that an epidemic, perhaps bird flu, could sweep through a country decimating the population is not so much a fantasy as a potential eventuality. The film is admirable for a number of reasons. First, it is an action film with a very heavy message, a lot of ideological discussion, and very little action. It was not until the very end of the film that the directors went all Matrix with slow motion slaughter for a few minutes. Also, the title character of the film, and its star, spends the entire film hidden behind a Guy Fawkes mask. It is almost a surprise at the end that the mask is not lifted and the man behind the mask is never revealed though the voice over at the beginning described that sense of loss and lack of knowledge. The point is perhaps that V is more of an idea than a man, a monster created by the monstrosities of a totalitarian government.

The films is the very embodiment of the Thomas Jefferson quote “When people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

The movie story is similar to The Count of Monte Cristo. The hero is a victim of torture and abuse at the hands of a shadowy government conspiracy who returns 15 years later to wreak vengeance on the totalitarian regime that caused his suffering. But V’s goals are larger than those of Edmond Dantes. Not only does he want to seek revenge on those who wronged him but he wants to undermine the whole foundation of the government that was formed on the lies at the base of his torture. Hugo Weaving does an admirable job as the inscrutable V all the while spewing witty though slightly unnerving rhetoric from behind a hard mask. To call the role challenging would be an understatement but Weaving has a remarkably expressive voice and he puts it to good use as the anti-hero.

To V’s mind the actions of Guy Fawkes, and his own actions, are more a symbolic assertion of independence than a terrorist activity. It is perhaps this activity that strikes the most pertinent today. In any conflict one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter and here with Hollywood’s liberal backing V is less a sadistic terrorist than a man who fights for ideals and freedom from a repressive and illegal regime.

On a more personal level V is the story of Evie, a young woman, played by Natalie Portman, who plays by the rules of the restrictive society, but who by chance ends up out after curfew and runs into V on the eve before Guy Fawkes Day. As a witness to these events Evie is now in danger of running afoul of the repressive government and when V appears again at the television station where Evie works he is forced to take her away for her own safety. What follows is a humanization of V as he plays host to the young lady in the Shadow Gallery filled with interesting memorabilia banned by the regime. So much of the story is about rebirth and renewal that it is refreshing to see that the hint of a love story between Evie and V remains just that, a hint. There relationship is far to complex and burdened by the activities around them to be fulfilled. Much like the Count of Monte Cristo the need for revenge overpowers V and leaves little room for love. What this film also shows is what we all suspected even during the Star Wars films, Natalie Portman can act and is even capable of delivering potentially cheesy lines with grace when directed clearly.

V For Vendetta is exactly what is called for in this slow and steady spring season. An action film with both style and substance that entertains as well as provokes thoughts about the role of government in peoples’ lives. Natalie Portman handles the role of scared girl turned freedom fighter well and grounds the film in her actions and reactions. Hugo Weaving makes his V a combination of cruelty and compassion all the time jailed behind his Guy Fawkes mask. The supporting cast is excellent and the feeling of oppression is palpable in this successful big screen comic book realization. V For Vendetta is a film well worth watching that will leave a lingering impression and perhaps provoke a few interesting political discussions as well.

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