I think most people have read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, right? It usually gets assigned in high schools, and as a result, most of the familiar tropes of Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian state are ingrained in our culture: telescreens broadcasting propaganda, a police state violently crushing all dissent, and of course, the corruption of language to control the population’s thoughts.
Orwell didn’t invent these ideas, of course; he merely extrapolated the methods he observed being used by dictators like Hitler and Stalin into the future, resulting in one of the seminal works of 20th-century literature.
V for Vendetta reimagines what Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been like if Batman had been there.
Is that a bit flip? Maybe you think so now, but let’s look at how this film begins: we have pretty young damsel Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) walking home after curfew in a crumbling, futuristic London when she is attacked by government security agents known as “Fingermen,” who, upon finding a damsel, immediately propose to put her in distress. Already this movie is off on the wrong foot with me.
But then, the hero of the piece enters the scene: V (Hugo Weaving), a mysterious terrorist or freedom fighter wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, who rescues Evey from her attackers and then proceeds to give the following melodramatic speech:
Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition.
He goes on like that for a while longer, and then takes Evey to the rooftops of London to watch as Old Bailey is demolished while the 1812 Overture plays over the public address speakers.
Okay, I can accept this character is a terrorist with a flair for drama. I can even accept, although it’s logically impossible, that he managed to miraculously time his rescue of Evey so that they could be on the roof at the stroke of midnight on November 5th.
But why the 1812 Overture? Why is a piece of music written by a Russian to commemorate the Tsar’s defeat of Emperor Napoleon I’s Grande Armée being used by a man who is supposedly fighting to liberate England? Why not use something from the English Civil War? For that matter, wouldn’t he see Napoleon’s defeat as a bad thing? A victory of the Tsarist aristocracy over a People’s Army? V is really much more like Napoleon than he is like Guy Fawkes, but that’s for later.
I know the reason the filmmakers used the 1812 Overture, of course: it’s because it’s a great piece of music, and it works well dramatically. But it feels contrived–an empty spectacle, lacking earned emotional weight. In truly great cinema, the filmmaker’s hand is invisible; the spectacle must arrive organically.
Anyway, later that day (?) Evey goes back to her job at the TV station. It’s not exactly clear to me what she does–apparently she’s some kind of assistant for a variety program hosted by Gordon Deitrich (Stephen Fry). She takes delivery of a bunch of boxes which prove to contain more Guy Fawkes masks, and soon after, V launches an attack on the television studio.
Meanwhile, police detective Finch (Stephen Rea) is working to figure out who attacked the Old Bailey, and from security camera footage, realizes Evey may know how to find V. He races to the television studio, but in the confusion of V’s attack, fails to capture him or Evey.
V takes over the airwaves and broadcasts a message to the people, condemning the government of High Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt):
[W]hile the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression.
And how did this come about? V addresses that as well:
I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.
Finally, he tells the bewildered citizens his demands:
I ask you to stand beside me one year from tonight, outside the gates of Parliament, and together we shall give them a fifth of November that shall never, ever be forgot.
And with that, V departs, leaving a bunch of captives clad in Guy Fawkes masks. A policeman attempts to stop him on his way out, but Evey distracts him. The policeman punches her, but V knocks him out and takes the unconscious Evey to his secret underground lair.
Yes, his secret underground lair, full of priceless art, luxurious furnishings, and various other trinkets which V has acquired over the years. And here we must ask: exactly how scared can you be of a government that, for all its Orwellian bluster, can’t find a flamboyantly-dressed terrorist who resides in a maze of tunnels underneath their own capital city? I mean really, this would just not happen on Big Brother’s watch.
V explains that he needs Evey to stay with him for the entire year, until next November 5th. If she leaves, she could be captured and tortured to give the government information on his whereabouts. Evey gets mad at V, and then immediately forgives him. Evey does stuff like that–her psychology is based purely on the dramatic needs of the scene she happens to be in.
V then enlists Evey’s help in a campaign of murderous revenge against various people in the government–the host of a propaganda talk-show is first on his hit-list, followed by a sick, perverted priest. Evey continues her policy of doing random things and tries to get the priest to help her, but he doesn’t, because he really is a vile, twisted monster. V kills him, but Evey runs away and back to Deitrich’s house. Deitrich welcomes her and confesses that he, too, is a subversive whose activities the government would not look kindly upon–he owns a Quran and a collection of homoerotic photos.
While all this has been going on, Finch has been pursuing his own, much better, storyline. He has been uncovering connections among V’s victims, and traced them all to an experimental facility called Larkhill, where government prisoners were subjected to cruel and ultimately lethal experiments with biological weapons. This is further confirmed when V kills a doctor who experimented on him at the facility.
Meanwhile, Deitrich, for some insane reason, does a sketch on his television show mocking Chancellor Sutler, which prompts the police to raid his house. Evey escapes momentarily, but is knocked unconscious and dragged to a prison where she is tortured and her head shaved.
While imprisoned, she finds a note hidden in a small hole in the wall. It’s from a young woman named Valerie, previously imprisoned for being a lesbian. She recounts the rise of Sutler’s fascistic party and their murder of her partner. Evey takes courage from reading Valerie’s words, and refuses to submit to her captors, even when they threaten to kill her and offer her freedom in exchange for information about V.
At last, Evey is released from her cell to find that she’s actually back in V’s subterranean bat-cave! Yes, all along, it was V torturing her, as a test of her loyalty, as well as, he claims, a way to free her from fear. By losing her fear of death, Evey is now liberated! Or something.
This is stupid. First, it makes V seem less like a freedom fighter and more like just another gangster, almost as bad as the people he’s fighting. And second, it once again forces us to consider the question of “How the Hell has the Government Not Noticed V’s Fake Prison Adjacent to His Underground Art Museum?”
Meanwhile, Finch has pretty much pieced together the mystery of Larkhill. The biological weapon being tested there was a deadly virus, which then-Secretary of Defense Adam Sutler deployed against his own population in order to induce panic. Blaming the attack on terrorists, Sutler then used the promise of restoring order to lead his party to an overwhelming majority. Meanwhile, the upper-management of the Larkhill program enriched themselves by controlling the distribution of the vaccine.
Finch’s faith in the government is shaken by this. (Why he ever had any faith in this blatantly corrupt horror show is less clear.) Meanwhile, V is busy setting up dominoes on the floor of his secret lair to fall into an intricate mosaic of his “V” logo. Seriously, there’s a scene like that. It’s a metaphor, I guess.
V then distributes Guy Fawkes masks all across London, inspiring the increasingly discontented populace to rise up. Sutler responds with a heightened police and military presence to fight the angry mobs.
Once again, we reach November 5th, and Evey finds V and learns his ultimate plan, which is to send a trainload of explosives rolling into Parliament.
Yes, a train. Somehow there is an un-patrolled train tunnel leading into Parliament that the supposedly intrusive police state knows nothing about. These people aren’t totalitarians, if only because “totalitarian” is derived from “total,” and their control over the public is clearly not total. This state’s power ends at the ground, and anything that goes on below that is the Wild West.
V tells Evey that it’s up to her to pull the lever that will send the bomb-filled train on its way. He says that both he and the regime he is destroying are part of an old world, and the people who outlive both will make a new world. “They deserve to make that choice,” he says. I actually liked this bit. It’s a nice illustration of the philosophical concept of thesis -> antithesis -> synthesis.
V heads off to confront Chancellor Sutler, who has been betrayed by the head of his secret police. V then kills them all by bringing knives to a gunfight. (Only in Hollywood, folks.) However, in a small sop to plausibility, he sustains mortal injuries in the process.
He stumbles back to the train station and dies in Evey’s arms, telling her that he had been living for revenge every day until he met her, at which point he fell in love. It’s not really clear why–there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about her. On the other hand, since V has presumably been living alone in the catacombs all this time, you can see he would have been susceptible.
Evey loads V’s body onto the train and sends it on its way. Meanwhile, a huge mob of citizens wearing Guy Fawkes masks storm the military barricades surrounding parliament. The soldiers, with their government decapitated, stand down, allowing the crowd to surround the building and watch as it is blown to pieces, again accompanied by the 1812 Overture. Finch finally catches up with Evey, and as they watch the building explode, he asks her who V was. She replies, “He was all of us.”
One big problem I have with this film is that despite the omnipresent Guy Fawkes imagery, it seems only dimly aware of who Guy Fawkes actually was. V is fighting a religious extremist government; Fawkes was a religious extremist. And he was kind of a screw-up, judging by what a catastrophe the Gunpowder Plot turned out to be for him.
The film tries to draw on a lot of historical material to give it weight, but it doesn’t understand the historical context of its own references. The 1812 Overture was one example; another is V’s repeated references to The Count of Monte Cristo. V spends the lonely hours in his base of operations watching the 1934 film adaptation of the novel by Alexandre Dumas. V identifies with the protagonist’s quest for revenge.
Here’s an interesting factoid about The Count of Monte Cristo: the protagonist is sympathetic to Napoleon, as was Dumas himself. Quite frankly, if you want an example of someone who successfully led a movement to destroy a failing government and replace it with one that was at least semi-functional, Napoleon is a much better example to follow than Fawkes.
I know my loyal readers are wise to me, and will say I only think that because I’m an unreconstructed Bonapartist. Well, it’s a fair cop. But there are other historical figures who fit much more closely to the mold of what V is trying to accomplish. Oliver Cromwell was a religious zealot and a murderous thug, but at least his revolution succeeded for a while. Another possible model would be Alexander Kerensky, who arguably did what V does at the end of the film, giving the people a choice in their future. (In Kerensky’s case, the people did not choose wisely.)
I don’t think the filmmakers ever quite made up their minds about the age-old question asked of every fictional character: what’s their motivation? V’s motives are murky: he talks a lot about symbols and ideas, and how his masks and theatrical terrorist acts symbolize some idea or other. But when we find out he’s seeking vengeance against specific people in retribution for things they did to him, he seems less like an idealist and more like somebody who’s been wronged and is looking to get back at the people who wronged him.
There’s nothing wrong with either story. Stories about idealistic freedom fighters can be good. Stories about people seeking revenge for some wrongdoing can also be good. But by trying to be both, the end result is that V seems almost as hypocritical as the government he’s trying to destroy. That idea itself could be quite interesting. “He who fights with monsters…” etc. But the film doesn’t explore that either. It suggests we’re supposed to view V as unambiguously heroic, as Evey, the on-screen proxy for the audience, does–despite the fact that she is almost certainly suffering from Stockholm syndrome.
It took me years to finally watch this movie all the way through. I’d start it, get fairly deep into it, and then get so irritated I’d have to stop. Part of it may have been the dialogue, which takes a lot of words to say a little. People frequently say things like, “Can I ask you something?” to which the other character replies, “Yes,” and then they go on. Fat like that ought to be cut from a script.
But despite this, I wouldn’t say I hate this movie. It’s not what I consider a good film, but it is interesting. It has a cult following, and it’s easy to see why: it’s weird and offbeat and a bit subversive. There is a wealth of promising material here, but it’s not utilized as well as it could have been.
And yes, I know it’s based on a graphic novel, and no, I have not read it.