V for Vendetta
(SPOILERS) In terms of iconography, the Wachowskis’ adaptation of Alan Moore’s 1980s broadside against Thatcherism has been of undoubted significance. As a movie, it is much less impactful, if not to say clumsy and ill-conceived. V for Vendetta’s sub-1984 messaging hits a number of easy targets in its raging against fascism while simultaneously flirting with anarchy (targets, to be fair, that Moore was also easily hitting). As a consequence, it come across as rather weak sauce, depicting a totalitarian regime too indebted to previous illustrations of the same to have much resonance in its own right, while as a production it’s too slick and glossy to ever really dig into what a horror show that would be (or is). And it has a happy ending!
Of course, you could legitimately bring the charge that the material itself is conceptually flawed, however much Moore may have harangued the movie, sight unseen, for being repurposed to fit the Bush era (with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think this element really feels that glaring, aside from a few references to Islam). Which goes to Moore’s rather endearing take that there are more than superficial differences between party positions. Fair enough, during the early 80s it would have seemed there were, with vivid demarcation between left and right and very evident attacks taking place on the former’s ideals. But where Moore holds his hand up to naivety for believing Thatcher would be supplanted by Foot in 1983, his credulity really comes into question with a later quote, not much more than a decade old, one that suggests his magician’s hat hasn’t granted him that much additional insight, in between casting spells and putting his name to dubiously motivated “provocative” fare such as Lost Girls.
With regard to the arena of conspiracies, Moore’s was a very familiar position of the “trust me, I’ve looked into this” variety, in tandem with the patronising one of characterising “believers” in diminishing terms (you know, the sort of thing Blair might say). He commented that “the main thing I learned about conspiracy theories is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in the conspiracy because that is more comforting” (this is probably the standard “insight” cited into those afflicted with such a paranoid condition, and we must count ourselves fortunate there are prevailing wise heads like Alan’s to set us straight). Summarising, Moore asserted, perhaps through casting the runes, perhaps through crystal gazing, that “the truth is far more frightening; no one is control, the world is rudderless”. I wonder if he feels the same after the past six months have unfolded at a pace globally.
The consequence is that Moore’s V for Vendetta regime is as comfortingly fragile as any given slice of a nominally two-party system, ripe for a strong leader with a flair for the theatrical and Architect-levels of verbosity to topple it. Which is to say that V for Vendetta only ever feels rather facile, the Wachowskis playing at political engagement when it isn’t really their forte. I do wonder, however, that Moore’s envisaged a transgender protagonist when he first came up with the idea in 1975, and whether this may have factored in to their keenness to develop the project. Certainly, Lilly’s “admission” that The Matrix really was about transgenderism, as has been mooted over the past couple of years, seems like an opportunistically applied commentary, particularly given the gamut of their existential fascinations, from reincarnation (Cloud Atlas) to a literal expression of the loosh system via reptilian aliens (Jupiter Ascending). I’d be more credulous if they foisted such a subtext on, say, Speedracer, since on the face of it, it doesn’t seem to be about anything very much at all
Delia Sturridge: This could be the dawn of a new age. Nuclear power is meaningless in a world where a virus can kill an entire population and leave its wealth intact…
Moore accused the film (or rather, the script) of having been defanged of its original intent, and it’s certainly true that the Norsefire Party are caricatures, embodied by one-time Winston Smith John Hurt in the spirit of Big Brother. It’s also the case that V has been made more straightforwardly dashing, a little mind-control on Evey in her own best interests aside.
Nevertheless, the addition of the St Mary’s virus is interesting, as an artificially-engineered bioweapon enabling the totalitarian regime to come to power (in the comic, Norsefire were simply elected). Okay, for the purposes of the movie, it is real, but nothing ever perfectly sets the scene (although, one might read “Imagine a virus. The most terrifying virus you can. And then imagine you and you alone have the cure” differently, if one puts the emphasis on “imagine”). The Wachowskis as facilitators of predictive programming? They had, after all, ushered into common vocabulary the “crazy” idea that we are all living in a false reality, one that has persisted for two decades and doubtless serves someone’s agenda. So why not this? (Notably, Roger Ebert’s review sets the film in 2020, although this isn’t stated anyway outright.)
V: Some believed that it was the work of God himself, but it was a pharmaceutical company controlled by certain party members made them all obscenely rich. But the true genius of the plan was fear… Fear became the ultimate tool of this government.
Such nefariousness at least earns V for Vendetta points (as do false-flag attacks on a school, a tube station and a water treatment plant) for insidious design. Unfortunately, any impulse to “realism” is seriously hampered by the inept Hollywood realisation of Britain, complete with, as Moore rightly ridiculed, “eggy in a basket” for breakfast. The movie is both visually polished and crude in content, with dialogue such as “Our job is to report the news, not fabricate it. That’s the government’s job!” Subtle. Other gems include “He’s a terrorist. You can’t expect him to behave like you or me”, “Now, would you care for a cup of tea with your egg?” and “I don’t have to be a Muslim to find images beautiful”. V, a glutton for verbiage and deliberate diction, observes at one point “I enjoy them as much as any bloke”. Because that’s how English people speak.
V: Would you dine with me?
Evey: Now, on the eve of your revolution?
The picture is riddled with clunkers and howlers, and while some of the performers struggle manfully to overcome such limitations (Stephen Rea, Roger Allam), others (Rupert Graves especially) seem to be doing their best to let the spirit of Dick van Dyke live on.
Thematically, V for Vendetta is a ponderous and didactic stodge. The shopping list of the persecuted “immigrants, Muslims, homosexuals, terrorists. Disease-ridden degenerates” represent autopilot signposting, as does Fry’s sensitive but closeted TV presenter (the less said about his Benny Hill style on-air rebellion the better). These are exactly the rote buttons pushed to identify nominal sides and barriers, although that may just be me looking for comfort. There’s a very “pat oneself on the back” quality about its authoritarian targets that renders the studious righteousness inert and banal.
However, there are some good scenes. I really like the poisoning of Sinead Cusack’s former detention centre physician (“Is it meaningless to apologise?”: “Never”). Also, the contrast with her flashback elite-poised view of test subjects (“They’re so weak and pathetic. They never look you in the eye. I find myself hating them”) is quite telling. And the sentiment that “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people” is very commendable, but better delivered in less sterile and uninspiring trappings than this. Particularly when it is followed by such glibness as “Beneath this mask is an idea. And ideas are bullet proof”.
That, of course, is the glibness that makes it ideal fodder for Occupy or Anonymous, and easily appropriated by Mr. Robot. Weaving (replacing Purefoy for reasons never fully explained) provides a highly memorable performance at the centre of an otherwise indifferent movie, so it’s no wonder V had an afterlife that dwarfs the picture itself. Because otherwise, there simply aren’t enough flashy distractions from the leaden performances, dialogue and plotting.
James McTeigue graduated to the big leagues after serving as first assistant director for The Matrix trilogy. It has been suggested he was ghost directed here, but I don’t think we need to doubt this was his unengaged work (his subsequent movies have borne that out). The action lacks the choregraphed perfection of The Matrix (both in terms of performer moves and camera moves). And if Adrian Biddle’s cinematography (his final film) is fine for what it is, the contrast really should surely have been between the grit of an oppressive regime and the flamboyance of V. Instead, they’re all of the same cloth.
As for Natalie Portman, she’s weighed down by a very bad cut-glass English accent and a general air of blandness, despite the MKUltra chic she brings to “bravely” shaving her head for the role (this sequence borrows plot points from The Ipcress File; the climax will do likewise from A Fistful of Dollars). The effects work is variable, be it Portman standing in CGI rain or V’s flame-on flashback. It isn’t hard to see why Moore isn’t keen on Hollywood messing with his work, what with his having been co-opted for overblown action (The Extraordinary League of Gentlemen), BLM (Watchmen TV) a Depp vanity project (From Hell) and low-hanging fruit political statements (this). All the same, for a V for Vendetta adaptation to impress, his original would have needed a lot of work.