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V For Vendetta by John McTeigue (dir)/The Wachowski Bros (wr)
Review by Drew Bittner
Warner Bros film  
Date: / Show Official Info /

CAST: Natalie Portman as Evey Hammond * Hugo Weaving as V * Stephen Rea as Finch * Stephen Fry as Deitrich * John Hurt as Adam Sutler * Tim Pigott-Smith as Creedy

Evey Hammond is having a bad night. Out after curfew, on her way to a mysterious assignation, she is attacked by a pair of lusty lowlifes--who turn out to be secret police (Fingermen, in the movie's slang). She is attacked... and saved by a mystery man in a smiling mask and Puritan garb. He takes her to safety, saying he is a musician, and invites her to witness a very special performance.

"Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot..." With those words, an anti-hero named V (Weaving) throws down the gauntlet to a fascist government... and blows up the Old Bailey, venerable courthouse of central London. The government-run media tries to deny the truth, but the cracks are showing.

This is V for Vendetta, written by the Wachowski Brothers (best known for The Matrix), based on the comic book series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd.

V styles himself after Guy Fawkes, an anarchist who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the 17th century. We see Fawkes's abortive effort early on, then cut to a dismal near-future, where Britain is ruled by a fascist government run by Adam Sutler (Hurt). Sutler presides over a crew of thugs and underlings, such as the sadistic security chief Creedy (Pigott-Smith) and the world-weary Inspector Finch (Rea), his face blown to enormous proportions on a television screen (the better to berate and belittle them).

Sutler's rule is based on fear. The United States is a Third World backwater, treated with contempt by the hate-mongering Voice of London, Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam), while Britain herself labors under oppressive curfews, midnight arrests and concentration camps where nightmare medical experiments are performed... all in the name of providing "security" to a terrified and cowed populace.

V is ready to end that, brutally and directly. After blowing up the Old Bailey, he hijacks the airwaves and delivers a short, blunt threat, along with an invitation: in a year's time, the Houses of Parliament will be destroyed. The government of Adam Sutler will be overturned. Any who are sick of the poisonous atmosphere of fear and oppression are invited to join him. V does not exempt the people from their culpability, noting that they put Sutler and his crew into power, but says that it is their responsibility now to see them brought down.

Evey, bewildered and confused, is drawn into V's world largely against her will. She is kept in his home, a subterranean wonderland he calls the Shadow Gallery, where banned works of art and literature and intellect are prized and on display. She offers to help him, but when she realizes that he is systematically killing a long list of Party loyalists (starting with the Voice of London himself), she has second thoughts.

Meanwhile, Finch tries to discover who V could be. The trail leads him to a camp for political prisoners where doctors did some very illegal research. The camp was blown up some years back... but he learns that Prothero was the commander of the camp and others who have been murdered where also connected to it. Is V seeking revenge against the government or does he have a much more personal link to his targets?

Evey finds sanctuary with Deitrich (Fry), a popular entertainer who follows V's lead and mocks Sutler on his show. He is arrested by the secret police. Evey runs again but is captured and subjected to a dehumanizing incarceration.

Events race headlong toward V's date with destiny. V masks are distributed far and wide throughout Britain, provoking outrages and massive civil unrest (including a tragic murder). Sutler becomes more frantic and paranoid, bullying his restive toadies to their breaking point... and V's mission approaches a fateful end.

While not perfect as a movie, V for Vendetta has undeniable power. One underlying message appears to be that societies live in a dynamic tension between the tyranny of security (expressed here as fascism) and the tyranny of freedom (anarchy). The people must exercise their own freedom to choose, and must share accountability when their choices are bad ones.

The message (and its topical nature) may be less than subtle, but the acting is superb. Weaving does amazing work without the actor's fundamental tools of facial expression, using only his voice and posture to convey V's rage, anguish, hubris and compassion; it's a masterful performance and a rare one, likely to be used by acting teachers worldwide.

Portman's Evey is the daughter of dissenters who met a bad end (a divergence from the source material), and who herself strives only to blend in, to vanish into the background. She lives in fear, but her struggles put her fears behind and she can take responsibility for what she does.

Rea's Finch is the hopeless man who knows better, serving a corrupt system that betrays everything he believes in. He is on V's trail, his investigation becoming a revelation, until he comes to a moment of clarity, imagining where the violence and rage will lead.

Allam's Prothero, John Standing's Archbishop Lilliman and Sinead Cusack's Delia Surridge all provide portraits of banal evil (though Allam may be channeling some current commentators for his most impassioned rants), but it is John Hurt who is the face of this monstrous regime. His venomous visage looms over his browbeaten underlings, his lips spewing bile as he clamps down harder and harder on his ill-gotten power. It's a great acting job, and perhaps ironic; Hurt delivered a powerful performance in a production of 1984, playing Winston Smith (the archetypal victim of evil government).

If nothing else, the film delivers a strong meditation on the responsibilities of people to government, government to people, and people to themselves. Few people should walk out without an awful lot of thinking to do.

Recommended.

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