The Revolution Will Be Projected
Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that once knew someone wanted by the police for non-payment of poll tax. Yes indeed, we lived high and wild back in the old days! And there's more civil disobedience of various kinds in this week's movie: James McTeigue's belated and controversial film adaptation of V for Vendetta, a legendary graphic novel created by artist David Lloyd and a writer of surpassing genius who has declined to be associated with the film in any capacity — a wish I feel obliged to honour. Set in a fascist London, not too many years hence, this is the story of V (voiced by Hugo Weaving), a man transformed into a living avatar of vengeance and anarchy by government-sanctioned drugs tests. Styling himself as a modern Guy Fawkes, with his true face hidden from the world, V is finally ready to set his masterplan in motion, but finds his path crossed by Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a young woman working in TV. V saves Evey from the secret police after she's caught out after the curfew and takes her along as he cheerfully blows up the Old Bailey, his calling card to the world. A strange bond begins to form between them even as V reveals his ultimate objective: to destroy the government, an act that will be symbolised by his blowing up the Houses of Parliament. Can he succeed where his predecessor failed?
This is a movie that's had some rather mixed reviews — and that's probably putting it a mite charitably. To be honest, V for Vendetta is a film that doesn't easily fit into a neat category. Is it a political thriller? Is it a darkly comic satire? Is it a drama? Or is it just another knuckle-headed comic book adaptation? Well, it isn't really any of them (and especially not the last one — but then, the original strip was never remotely knuckle-headed either). But I have to say I was impressed by it. It's a bit difficult to say whether a familiarity with the source material is necessary to fully 'get' where the film is coming from, although I suspect many purists will be utterly horrified by some of the changes made to the story (and indeed, He Who Shall Not Be Named was loudly and publically scornful when the Wachowski brothers ran one version of their screenplay past him). That said, many right-thinking people will no doubt also be utterly horrified by a movie which openly aligns itself with a ruthless and deranged terrorist and deals with topics like Islamophobia, suicide bombings, blanket public surveillance and police shootings of innocents in a fairly no-holds-barred fashion.
One quietly impressive aspect to this movie is how much of the essential Britishness of the story remains, with a plot that revolves around the use of British landmarks and folklore (a brief primer on Guy Fawkes forms a prologue for those who don't know the story), with the US barely mentioned. Admittedly, in parts this is an as-seen-by-Americans kind of British, where the definitively British swearyword is... er... an anagram of 'sloblock' and people eat exotic breakfasts like 'eggy in a basket' (no, me neither). The script's faithfulness to the original text also leads it astray at one point - the story has been shifted into the future, resulting in one character talking about how they took their 11 Plus exam in 1996, which is obviously sloblock but an understandable goof.
The Wachowskis' script is generally quite good. Well, there's an alarmingly arbitrary area of appalling alliteration near the start and a tendency towards rather pedestrian dialogue in the new sections, but most of the wit and the heart of the book survives, if not all of the brain - some of the subtleties and ambiguities are excised (V's background is presented very straightforwardly, for example). They've done a good job in paring back a long and densely written work while keeping all the most memorable sequences more or less intact, if perhaps a little rearranged. It's not quite perfect: moving the story from a post-nuclear 1998 to a post-viral 2026 requires a bit of creative stitching and the joins show (plus this involves a sequence where V appears to disguise himself as He Who Shall Not Be Named, a bizarrely obscure and no doubt unwanted little homage). More seriously, not only is the end quite a bit different, but it also includes a rather egregious sequence where V declares his love for Evey (yeah, a bit of a spoiler there, sorry). Thankfully, by this point it's not quite enough to derail things.
As you would expect, Hugo Weaving gives a tremendous vocal performance as V (quite how much, if any, of James Purefoy's original physical performance in the costume has survived I've no idea), coping with some dodgy dialogue with aplomb (apart from the stuff mentioned already, one monologue where V rants about how this twisted future came about is so hackneyed and overfamiliar in its politics that I almost expected V to rip off his mask and reveal a lipo-sucked Michael Moore underneath). Natalie Portman is also good, albeit with a slightly peculiar accent. The supporting roles are filled with very reliable British and Irish thesps, with Stephen Rea excellent as a world-weary copper. The real surprise package is the fourth-billed Stephen Fry, who — while admittedly nearly playing himself — is terrific, hopefully reminding everyone of what a classy and talented serious actor he can be when not holidaying at short notice in Bruge.
Those who know the team behind V for Vendetta solely from the Matrix trilogy will probably be a little disappointed by the lack of action in this movie, and to be fair it is a little simplistic in its advocacy of the politics of violent rebellion. One of the quirks of the original book was that — due to a delay in its original production — a story originally predicated on the impending defeat of Margaret Thatcher at the end of her first term in office (this really did look likely, prior to the Falklands War) eventually became an incensed polemic against Thatcher's government during its late-1980s zenith. You can say what you like about the current lot but they're not quite that bad (yet, at least) and so some of the anger seems targetless here. But there's a real spirit of righteous fury in this film, even if it sometimes seems a little unsure as to who it's furious with and why. The end result is often moving, thought-provoking and exhilarating, if never quite all three at the same time.