With even retired Supreme Court justice (and Reagan appointee) Sandra Day O’Connor warning of the “beginnings” of a dictatorship, it’s the perfect moment for the ridiculous but riotously enjoyable revolutionary comic-book thriller V for Vendetta—which will doubtless outrage conservatives and unnerve fuddy-duddys but liberate the rest of us with its magisterial irresponsibility.
Adapted by the Wachowski brothers from Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel, the film unfolds in a totalitarian Britain of the near future, some years after a series of devastating terrorist attacks has put the kibosh on civil liberties. The model is clearly the Soviet Union by way of Orwell, but Thatcherism inspired the original eighties comic book, and it’s hard to miss the Wachowskis’ mischievous gibes at the present U.S. regime. This isn’t an earnest civics lesson like Good Night, and Good Luck. The masked avenger who calls himself “V” (Hugo Weaving) blows things up real good and gleefully chases his conflagrations with fireworks and the booming 1812 Overture. V lectures his protégée, aptly named Evey (Natalie Portman), in the ethos of muckraking, burlesque, sexual freedom, and anarchism. “People should not be afraid of their governments,” he proclaims. “Their governments should be afraid of them.” Given his habit of assassinating apparatchiks, exploding landmarks, and hijacking TV networks, his government is certainly afraid of him.
As they demonstrated in The Matrix and its ponderous sequels, the Wachowskis gravitate to messiahs who strive to overthrow repressive social orders, but V for Vendetta never bogs itself down in religious allegory or woo-woo mysticism. It’s a pop hodgepodge. V is part Zorro, part Cyrano, and part Phantom of the Opera, with a touch of Tim Burton’s Batman. His mask is modeled on Guy Fawkes, executed in 1606 for attempting to dynamite the English Parliament, and that smiling papier-mâché visage seems remarkably alive—especially when it’s underscored by Weaving’s rolling baritone. The actor (he was the antichrist Agent Smith in The Matrix) is currently bringing down the house as a preening, sadistic Judge Brack opposite Cate Blanchett in Hedda Gabler at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; he’s a hambone with a rapier edge.
V and Evey meet sort of cute: He uses knives and lightning martial-arts moves to dispatch the undercover police goons menacing her, then further demonstrates his potency by blowing up the Old Bailey. The director, James McTeigue (he was the assistant director on the Matrix movies), achieves a delirious swashbuckler tone with splashes of bejeweled blood and dollops of Grand Guignol horror. A former prisoner and lab rat in a hush-hush government research facility, V relishes his complicated schemes—and so does McTeigue, who devises a bravura montage around the image of V exulting over a field of tumbling dominos. The avenger gleefully materializes in the homes of government lackeys who done him wrong. It’s a hoot to see him terrorize the official “Voice of London,” Prothero (Roger Allam), a TV windbag who evangelizes against enemies of the state. But there’s a haunting dissonance when he comes for an already guilt-ridden physician (Sinéad Cusack). A three-dimensional vigilante picture needs (at least) one non-triumphant execution to gum up the machine.
V for Vendetta is otherwise pretty black-and-white—maybe too white in the case of Evey, a colorless ingenue who spends much of the picture lolling around V’s underground lair with its vintage jukebox and works of “forbidden” art. Evey might seem less of a goody two-shoes if she’d begun—as in the graphic novel—by turning tricks for money; and her relationship with another TV host, a melancholy teddy bear (Stephen Fry), is yawningly platonic. After Evey’s head is shaved and she endures a marathon torture session, we expect great things. It’s a lapse in the screenwriting that her new fearlessness is barely tested; she’s a Joan of Arc who never fights. But Portman’s watchfulness and unaffected beauty keep you entranced—and the movie from drifting into camp. Whatever else it is, V for Vendetta is not frivolous. The Wachowskis—one of whom is reportedly in the midst of a sex change—introduce a lesbian martyr to make a plaintive case for the right to be what one is.
John Hurt (who once played Winston Smith in a version of 1984!) is the country’s Fascist chancellor, Sutler, who’s largely seen on monitors bullying his underlings, among them a pasty Stephen Rea as a plodding, good-hearted inspector. This part of the movie might have seemed fresher if Sutler weren’t such an old-fashioned Hitler type; he might have, for instance, folksily counseled his countrymen to put food on their children or accidentally shot an acquaintance in the face. But even without the nudge-nudge parallels, V for Vendetta’s Pop Art mixture of revolutionary symbols from history, literature, and painting feels gladdeningly subversive.