Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is adding V for Vendetta to his ever-growing collection of The Count of Monte Cristo variations.
Welcome to Dystopia, where it's always 1984!
George Orwell wrote his famous cautionary tale in 1948 (reversing the last two digits for his title). He'd seen the rise and fall of Hitler's Germany and taken a look at what was happening in the Soviet Union, and he didn't want his England falling into the hands of Nazis or Communists. Thus he created the allegorical story of Winston Smith of the Ministry of Truth, who finds himself in trouble with his Big Brother when he comes to realize that the ministry's work has little to do with truth.
Orwell created a society where what you read in the paper could be different the next time you looked and telescreens watched people at every turn. His style of dystopian imagery has made its way into pop culture in the form of the mysterious Village in TV's The Prisoner and, bizarrely, a reality-show gimmick on Big Brother.
In comic books, there wasn't anything like Nineteen Eighty-Four until 1982, when V for Vendetta reached the pages of Warrior, a British comics weekly published from 1982 to 1985. The idea came from artist David Lloyd; the magazine teamed him with writer Alan Moore, one of its hottest names. When Warrior folded, it left the story unfinished—until 1988, when DC Comics let Moore and Lloyd resolve their cliffhanger in a comic book series that was reprinted as a popular graphic novel.
Since the comics were penned during the Thatcher era, you'll see hints of criticism of the Iron Lady's brand of conservatism in this near-future dystopia, but there's more at work than that. Wikipedia excerpts from Warrior a list of what Moore hoped to bring into his work: "Orwell. Huxley. Thomas Disch. Judge Dredd. Harlan Ellison's "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman. Catman and Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World by the same author. Vincent Price's The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Theatre of Blood. David Bowie. The Shadow. Night Raven. Batman. Fahrenheit 451. The writings of the New Worlds school of science fiction. Max Ernst's painting "Europe After the Rain." Thomas Pynchon. The atmosphere of British Second World War films. The Prisoner. Robin Hood. Dick Turpin…" Not sure if it's all there, but you'll notice a lot of these influences.
Like The Prisoner, V for Vendetta stirs up the standard dystopian mix by getting rid of wimpy Winston Smith, the man who is just trying to get by, and replacing him with someone more heroic. Made at the height of the spy series craze, The Prisoner followed a former agent, Number Six. V for Vendetta features a more classic hero; its mysterious V patterns himself along the lines of Guy Fawkes, the real-life revolutionary behind a plot to blow up the British Parliament building in 1605, and Edmond Dantes, the fictional hero of The Count of Monte Cristo.
Thus, you get your cautionary tale about the rise of fascism and totalitarianism, but you get your summer-movie pyrotechnics with it. If you spring for V for Vendetta: Two-Disc Special Edition, you get featurettes on the making of the picture as well.
Facts of the Case
"I have witnessed firsthand the power of ideas, I've seen people kill in the name of them and die defending them. But you cannot kiss an idea…"
As the story begins, Evey (Natalie Portman, Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) recalls how she first met V (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix Revolutions). Despite the curfew in London, Evey heads out for a meeting on November 4. Instead of having dinner with Gordon Deitrich (Stephen Fry, Jeeves and Wooster) as she'd planned, she meets up with the Fingermen, the creepy enforcers of the curfew. Evey's in big trouble—but someone comes to her rescue.
Her knight-errant is a man in a perpetually smiling mask, who wipes out her three attackers singlehandedly. She asks him who he is, only to hear him "remarking on the paradox of asking a masked man who he is," as he puts it. He will acknowledge that he goes by "V" (which Evey might have guessed by the way he carves the letter, in a variation of Zorro's "Z," on a sign reading "Strength Through Unity, Unity Through Faith") and goes on to show her what he's doing out that night—blowing up the Old Bailey, complete with fireworks display and Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." Security cameras spot Evey with V and here she is, back in big trouble.
"I want this terrorist found and I want him to understand what terror really means," Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) tells his functionaries, his visage towering over them on a giant telly.
As the police hunt her, Evey goes to her job at BTN television as usual, unaware that she's the target of an investigation by police who cart off suspects with black bags over their heads, never to be seen again. V also heads for BTN, since he wants to make a special broadcast to let people know that the midnight fireworks they heard weren't a planned demolition, as the government claims, but were instead his handiwork, the start of a year of revolution.
V checks in, but he can't check out, since the police have the place surrounded. Still, he has a plan. He sends his hostages out first, all in masks like his, hoping to slip out in the confusion. The police do fire on hostages by mistake, but as luck would have it, V is confronted—as Evey watches. In the blink of an eye, Evey leaps to V's aid with her can of mace and changes her life forever. When she wakes up, she's in the "Shadow Gallery," V's secret underground lair, where she'll stay until his revolution is complete, if he has anything to do with it.
Will V succeed in his revolution, or will Sutler control all that his people see and hear—forever?
Between its comic book origin and dystopian storyline, this movie needed to tell its story through dramatic imagery, and it succeeds. As is noted in the featurette on the movie's design, the world of V for Vendetta was created mostly with sets and miniatures in Berlin, with some local landscape helping to finish the portrait of a more noirish and sinister London. V's underground "Shadow Gallery"—with high arches that suggest age and strength, full of artifacts from "The Ministry of Objectionable Materials" like posters for White Heat and Mildred Pierce, a knight's armor, and (gasp!) comics, and stacked high with books—carries out the theme of V as an idea rather than just a man, even as it gives us a glimpse of how he's building himself up. His bravery in gathering the artifacts of a free society is summed up in a quote: "I suspect if they do find the place, a few bits of art will be the least of my worries." Later on, a secret room in Gordon Deitrich's house and his statement as he reassures Evey echo this theme. V's "Shadow Gallery" isn't quite like the dark Batcave; it's more of a monastic retreat where he contemplates his faith in ideas.
The first time we see Evey walking through the streets of London, the camera angles make her seem small against the noirish, bleak London streets with their posters extolling "Strength Through Unity, Unity Through Faith." The sense of smallness against a larger backdrop is hammered home as Evey endures imprisonment, when she's shown from above as a tiny orange figure in greyness. Though there are plenty of closeups, you'll get this sense of people as small figures on a big canvas often while watching V for Vendetta, as the movie creates its dystopian future. The dark of night becomes a metaphor, even in daylight; note how the fog V releases in the TV station as he makes his broadcast brings that noirish feeling to a normally bright, modern space.
Sutler's big-screen bombast as he blasts his functionaries for their constant failures in the war on V may be the most glaring example, but the telly is used throughout as a shorthand in establishing V for Vendetta's totalitarian society. The story begins with Louis Prothero's vitriolic broadcast, which sets the scene with a rant against the once-mighty United States, and depicts Gordon Deitrich's show as a piece of music-hall fluff designed to mesmerize the masses. TV screens playing in Prothero's bathroom, showing his image standing tough against V, are contrasted with the cowardly figure who falls on his rear when V takes him up on the offer. V himself goes for his favorite movie, The Count of Monte Cristo. When Evey watches it with him, she feels sorry for heroine Mercedes, whose love prefers vengeance to her bosom; this foreshadows her eventual love for V. The broadcasts shown in the movie tend to use logos and visuals that parody current broadcasters, with a dead-on accuracy that's jarring.
What do the good people of London think of V's vendetta? Early on, scenes of the people watching TV as V makes his speech show stunned thin-lipped reactions that give way to gradual hints of support in later reaction scenes. It's clear from the start, though, that they don't trust their government; the word "Bollocks" is the most likely reaction to the false news reports that flash across their telly screens. I particularly liked a sequence in which Gordon Deitrich mocks Sutler on his show in a parody combining the styles of The Benny Hill Show and The Prisoner; it's both funny ha-ha and funny strange. Another bit that struck me as memorable was one in which the authorities use TV footage of the police shooting down one of the hostages, in a V mask, by mistake to reassure viewers (falsely) that V is dead.
Since it's got a lot of background to bring in, the movie relies on flashbacks, as in Lost, to flesh out the events that led to the current London, even reaching back as far as the 1600s to show that gunpowder plot being attempted. Notes, statements made on camera, and memories are all brought to life in smaller scenes within the film. Most often, though, the future world is seen in small details through Evey's eyes as she watches a broadcast or tastes a rare delicacy. "God, I haven't had real butter since I was a little girl," she says as she bites into a piece of toast that contains the spreadable contraband, diverted from a shipment meant for the leader's own table.
Music also plays a big role, with V's jukebox giving viewers the window into his emotions that you don't get because of the mask. The jukebox is stocked with familiar tunes so you can access your own data bank of emotions as you listen. When Evey first awakens in V's lair, she hears the sad strains of Julie London's "Cry Me a River," which links romantic feelings with regret, foreshadowing the eventual bond between V and Evey. "The Girl From Ipanema" plays as V makes breakfast for the woman he is starting to love but will never seal a relationship with.
Working behind a mask didn't give Hugo Weaving much opportunity to add nuances to his performance as V. However, he imbues the role with all the theatricality you'd expect, making every movement count and reciting speeches with flair—many of which are filled with alliteration that takes a silver tongue just to get through, like "The only verdict is vengeance, a vendetta," to quote just a short example—as he builds himself into a hero, with his mask of theatricality seeming to shape the man inside the mask instead of just shaping his image. Even from behind a mask, he projects a charisma that could believably draw a following and, eerily, keeps the tone of his voice matched to that permanent smile on his face throughout. I liked the directorial decision to keep V a mysterious character throughout, rather than explaining too much about his background or his personal motives. It helps V for Vendetta reach the right mythical tone.
Natalie Portman is sympathetic as Evey, who tries to walk away from V's revolution even as she becomes a public enemy, even though we know she will eventually play a key role in his struggle. A surreal prison scene gives her the opportunity to show off her emotional range—from fear to anger to determination—not to mention a shaved scalp. She's both our eyes and ears as V's year of revolution unfolds and a character of her own, an average person who reluctantly grows into the extraordinary situation in which she finds herself.
Most interesting of the major characters, though, is Finch, the Chief Inspector who keeps investigating V's background even though he's been pressured by Creedy, Sutler's corrupt right-hand man. Stephen Rea (Michael Collins) often seems like the typical plodding copper of movies and TV, who lives for the answers he uncovers. This characterization is underscored by the cross-cutting between Finch and V, as in a more typical crime thriller, as the copper anticipates his quarry's moves just a moment too late. He's not naive about the society he lives in—he rushes to the TV station for "the chance to talk to her before she disappears into one of Creedy's black bags" when he first identifies Evey as the woman seen with V—but he still just does his job. Eventually, though, he begins to understand the magnitude of the evil around him and starts to question that job.
Like V, John Hurt's (The Storyteller) Sutler is more of an image or an idea than a performance as his visage emanates from the huge screen, a role that Hurt fits well. Though only present as a television image in most scenes, he conveys enough power to intimidate those who are actually in the room.
As a meeker man with a hint of V's rebellious attitude toward the oppressive society (enough so that it's almost plausible, at least for a moment, when he tries to convince Evey that he is V), Stephen Fry offers a glimpse of what V might look like with a human face. It's suggested that Fry's Gordon is homosexual, which gives his willingness to shelter the fugitive Evey a unique explanation: Instead of being a rebel like V, he draws his moral courage from the knowledge that he may be punished anyway in the movie's totalitarian London. This hints at the ultimate weakness of a government that rules through fear: A government that could come and get you any time doesn't present much of an extra threat if you rebel.
The action scenes are violent but swift: Blood spurts from the mouths of V's victims as his knives move in a blur, but these scenes are over in the blink of an eye. While they earn the movie its R rating, the shortness of these scenes makes it evident that ideas are the main emphasis of V for Vendetta.
With a crisp 2:40:1 anamorphic image and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, you'll get the full effect of the sights and sounds of V's London. Though there are lots of scenes of dark nights, the lighting creates its foreboding feeling without making it difficult to follow the action.
I liked the four featurettes that provide information about the making of the movie and the history behind it. "Freedom! Forever!," with the people on both sides of the screen sharing their views on the meaning of V for Vendetta, was apparently meant to be a substitute for a commentary. It was well done, with good comments, but you may want more. "Designing the Near Future" talks about the creation of a movie world (Natalie Portman adds a comment about a news report on a library in Iraq that saved banned works, for some real-world perspective). "Remember, Remember: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot" looks in detail at the historic plot to blow up the Parliament building in 1605. "England Prevails: V for Vendetta and the New Wave in Comics" mainly examines the history of this story. The featurettes provide about an hour of additional material, with a brief music video (Cat Power montage) and the theatrical trailer rounding out the package.
I found the Easter egg, by the way. It's above the second page of menu text on the special features DVD. The search was more fun than the actual find, since I didn't think the Saturday Night Live sketch it presents was all that funny; I'd much rather have had bite-sized Reese's candy instead.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The insertion of footage of anti-Bush protesters and sound bites of Malcolm X and Gloria Steinem at the end seemed heavy-handed in what was otherwise a well-thought-out allegorical story. Dropping too many political hints goes against the idea of leaving V a mystery and takes viewers out of his mythical world, at least for a moment here and there. Though these occasional references hardly ruin V for Vendetta, I can see why penman Alan Moore reportedly objected to the American political references.
As one historian put it in the featurette on Guy Fawkes, the continuing appeal of November 5 as a British holiday reveals the "enduring British wish to defy authority," as embodied by the revelry surrounding the burning in effigy of a would-be revolutionary. The mysterious V joins a long tradition of roguish British heroes dating back way beyond Guy Fawkes to Robin Hood. Some viewers might be uncomfortable with V's methods in light of turbulent current events, but this defiant, lawbreaking hero is in keeping with a modern retelling of a medieval knight's tale.
V for Vendetta has a loftier goal, though: to make viewers think about modern society and the proper role of government in people's lives. Though a few too-timely hints derail the train of thought, it generally presents its argument well.
It's said that a cynic is a disappointed optimist; cynical cinema buffs will find it difficult to be disappointed by this dystopian movie that ends with a ray of hope. V for Vendetta lets viewers have their cake and eat it, too, with popcorn action and lots of points to ponder.
Not guilty. You are now leaving Dystopia, where it's always November 5!
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Freedom! Forever!: Making V for Vendetta"
Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.