"They make us feel indebted
For saving us from hell
And then they put us through it
It's time the bastards fell!"
-- "Suspect Device," Stiff Little Fingers, 1979
"The revolution will not be televised."
-- Gil-Scott Heron
The more things stay the same, the more they change. Or vice-versa. Originally written and published in 1981, the comic book V for Vendetta was created by Englishmen Alan Moore (writer) and David Lloyd (artist) in response to political events in their home nation. They created a dark fantasia about life under fascism in a near-future England, and a masked man who sprung from the shadows to smash the iron grip of power. Over two decades later, V for Vendetta comes to the big screen with a script adaptation by Andy and Larry Wachowski, with big stars and big money all apparent in the final product. And once again, Hollywood moves at the speed of lead; a rousing response to Thatcherism is exactly what the world needs now.
Time turns all artifacts of rebellion into fetish objects: Ronald Reagan is immortalized as a collectible plate. Che Guevara's known mostly as a T-shirt. Billy Bragg's early on-the-cheap LP's of protest songs have been re-mastered for a CD box set with bonus DVDs. And turning any work of art into a movie inevitably takes time. The question of whether the world of 2006 resembles that of 1981 politically is a matter of personal opinion; the question of whether filmmaking has changed in the past 25 years is not. Moore's original vision (which I read when it was first published in serial form, riveted with adolescent angst) is so old it takes place in a future that is now our past. (It's also worth nothing that Moore has asked for his name to be removed from the film as part of a dispute with DC Comics - which, like Cinematical, is nestled under the corporate umbrella of Time Warner, along with Warner Brothers Films.)
The story is still essentially the same; after political chaos and mass destruction, England's risen from the ashes of ruin to be reborn as a orderly, healthy, efficiently-run dictatorship, complete with secret police and propaganda broadcasts. A young woman, Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) is out past curfew and set upon by the feared 'Fingermen' – secret police that can call anything you do a crime and whose every action is, by definition, legal. The cops are stopped by a single man – a cape-wearing phantasm wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, an unceasing, unsettling smile beaming out as he dispatches any who oppose him. (The film shows and explains how Fawkes attempted to destroy the House of Parliament in 1605 in a prologue, so American audiences won't be left wondering why the dude kicking ass is wearing what looks like, as near as they can tell, a Hamburglar mask.)
His name, he explains, is V. (Originally, actor James Purefoy was cast as the voice and form of V; during shooting the film, Purefoy was replaced by Hugo Weaving. In fact, Purefoy's body is still in some scenes, even if it's Weaving's voice coming from behind the mask.) And now that he's rescued Evey, they're intertwined. V explains his aims to her, offers her a crash course in his philosophy and madness, and makes her a guest in his hidden lair, which is crowded with now-forbidden art from the renaissance to the present. On-screen, V seems like a twisted reflection of Batman - a single, resourceful man of skill and will avenging a crime. The difference is that Batman's avenging the murder of his parents; V seeks to avenge the death of liberty.
That's a shallow comparison, but V for Vendetta is a shallow film. David Lloyd's original art has a coarse, gut-punch quality of ugliness to it; it was vulgar, violent, vibrant. As directed by James McTeigue, the movie version has a veneer of visual velvet putting voluptuous flesh on what were stark, skeletal images. It's telling that while the film takes place after bio-terrorism's killed a hundred thousand people and the resulting chaos destroyed the apparatus of government and made a fearful citizenry look to brutes, bullies and bastards to keep them safe, everyone looks great, and their consumer goods gleam. (The fact is that even by Hollywood standards, the 'dark' vision of V for Vendetta only partially convinces us that things are in fact so bad they demand radical action; the future-by-Armani look has rarely been more inappropriate for a film.) The coarseness of the source has been worn away by a thousand little changes sandblasted across the material. In the original, Evey was a prostitute; on-screen, she works in TV. (And spare me the joke about if that's really so much of a change.)
More importantly, the politics of the material have been altered by the Wachowskis' adaptation. The Wachowskis gave us one of the best hidden moments of subversion we've ever had in the action cinema with The Matrix, suggesting that modern life itself was all an evil, inhuman conspiracy that you were constantly helping fuel, as Lawrence Fishburne's Morpheus intoned, "… when you go to work ... when you go to church ... when you pay your taxes." V for Vendetta was undoubtedly an influence on The Matrix (Larry and Andy Wachowski labored on adapting the comic to the screen long before The Matrix films were written), but now it feels like the follower instead of the originator. The film shows liberalism rising up against fascism; Moore's vision offered anarchy as a counter to fascism. On the big screen, V for Vendetta says "We can take the system back!" On the page, the suggestion is that there's nothing in the system worth having.
But even without contrasting it with the source material, V for Vendetta feels a little off. As is standard in comic books, V's mission is tied in with his creation, and the retelling of that genesis feels rushed. A dogged policeman with contempt for the secret police, Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea), seeks to connect the dots between V, Evey and the highly-placed officials that V's murdering, but his deductive leaps come across as a little clumsy. Portman's a presence – she always is – but she's also curiously passive, either being dragged around by V or the police state instead of driving the action. There are some nice supporting performances – Stephen Fry plays a TV talk show host with hidden secrets, and John Hurt plays the Supreme Chancellor, a man seen mostly on huge TV screens, roaring down orders as every wrinkle and dental stain glares out 40 feet high in high-definition video. (Film buffs will be amused by Hurt's career track: From Winston Smith to Big Brother in just a little over 20 years.) But we only get a few glimpses of the man behind the mask – figuratively and literally – and the film is curiously cold because of that, even if it is, in many ways, the point.
V for Vendetta is being sold as an action flick, but there's a lot more talking taking place on the screen than action. The fight scenes are fine, but few and far between. Instead, we get lengthy discussions of banned art, monologues on the nature of freedom, exposition detailing personal histories and plot mechanism clockwork. A lot of V for Vendetta is pretentious, but in a way that reminds you how pretensions are occasionally the most visible symptom of ambitions. I don't think anyone is going to be wandering out of 16 Blocks contemplating the role of their own complicity in the structure of the state.
But there's no guarantee they'll be doing that walking out of V for Vendetta, either. At one point in the film, V's sitting down in his lair to watch one of his favorite films – the Robert Donat version of The Count of Monte Cristo. He invites Evey to join him, and she does so. She's never seen it, so she asks an important question: "Does it have a happy ending?" He smiles – but then again, he always does – and reassures her: "As only celluloid can deliver." He doesn't just sound like a man who's seen too many movies. He sounds like a man who's seen V for Vendetta. Warner Brothers is selling V for Vendetta with agitprop-styled posters and the slogan "Freedom Now! Freedom Forever!" But there's more actual subversion within a five-minute walk of my house – in a mom home schooling her kids, in the food bank for the poor run out of the basement of the church down the hill, in the bumper sticker recommending tax resistance against defense spending – then there is in all of V for Vendetta's glossy, great-looking 140-minute running time. v for Vendetta is a nice, slick piece of entertainment, but it wants to be more and fails miserably; it turns out the revolution will not be in IMAX, either, no matter how nice it may make the special effects sequences look.