The real reason to worry about the fate of Great Britain in the year 2020, if V for Vendetta is any indication, is that by then the Orwell knock-offs will be so uncontrolled and adulterated as to constitute their own permanent tyranny. The era’s soul-crushing conformist culture won’t be the politically despotic one portrayed in this movie; it’ll be a culture of numbly regurgitated, willfully cartoonish, pop political commentary.
Of which V for Vendetta is a prime (read: muddled, unimaginative) example. Scripted, perhaps inevitably, by The Matrix makers Larry and Andy Wachowski, it was directed by their first assistant from that trilogy, James McTeigue. The tale of a masked crusader battling an intolerant autocracy, it was adapted from the serious-minded serial comic written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd from 1981 through 1988, during what most of the movie’s target audience isn’t expected to recall as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher years. The original has been updated with post-Iraq talking points and, also, it seems, dumbed down. Moore, who wants nothing to do with the movie, has called it “imbecilic,” and he isn’t exactly wrong. This V for Vendetta seems to have just one idea, which is that it’s still clever, subversive and useful for a popcorn-muncher to belabor the semantic confusion between freedom fighter and terrorist.
Hugo Weaving plays a Londoner partial to cloaking himself in dark capes and covering his face with the blanched, smirking likeness of the radical Catholic Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605. He goes by the name of V, and he has some blowing up of his own to do. V is a sort of prog-goth swashbuckler vigilante, a weird amalgam of choice antiheroes from sagas past. He’s the Phantom Bat-Count of the Opera of Monte Cristo. He’s good with dagger-intensive martial arts and with florid, pseudo-intellectual fortune-cookie-style aphorisms.
What he’s up against is textbook dystopia—or, actually, CliffsNotes dystopia—conflating Big Brother, Hitler, Thatcher, Bush by association, the Taliban and, who knows, maybe somebody’s asshole science teacher? (The film features some seriously shady experiments.)
Point is: In this London town, if you’re, say, a young woman out past curfew, and the cops close in on you, you could do worse than a rescue via V. Such is what fate allows for Evey (Natalie Portman), a hapless employee of a propaganda-grinder TV station whose activist parents were imprisoned years ago and whom V quasi-adopts as a protégée.
Portman, still reigning as the movies’ loveliest nonentity, is perfect to play the lone bloom in a forcibly drab world—not to mention the object of many bookish-adolescent-male fantasies. What’s more, though I wouldn’t pretend to know my Derbyshire from my Nottingham, I’m sure her accent is a dead-on high-school-actress dialect—and therefore inadvertently sympathetic. The charm of their decidedly platonic courtship, for me at least, is the kinky hope that V will finally lose control and ravish her with a diction lesson.
Mostly they lurk in his “shadow gallery” among plunder from the Ministry of Objectionable Materials—butterfly collections, banned art, a jukebox, etc.—breakfasting over bossa nova and briefly philosophizing. This idyll can’t last, of course. For one thing, V’s idea of thwarting fascism—by killing innocent people and destroying the remaining symbols of functional liberal democracy—rightly strikes Evey as somewhat indelicate.
Can they reconcile? I’ll only say this: Fortunately, what the government somehow does not control is the mass production, sales and next-day shipping of Guy Fawkes masks, which V manages single-handedly, first as a tool of subterfuge and later, revolution. McTeigue stages it less as anarchy in the U.K. than a commercial for anti-allergy medication. People take off their masks, look up into the middle distance and breathe easy at last.
Other overstressed imagery includes V’s tag, logically enough a big red V, best displayed in tumbling dominoes or fireworks or spray paint on cinderblock walls. It’s a half-finished inversion of the anarchist’s A—or a rip-off from that early-’80s miniseries that went by the name of V. Remember? Reptiles from outer space who happened also to be imperialist totalitarians?
Anyway, you can see how these symbols are getting so oppressively cluttered. Heaven help us if V for Vendetta’s bleak future does arrive, and we don’t hear the marching jackboots because, as with so many annoying car alarms, we’ve finally learned to tune them out.