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V for Vendetta

 V for Vendetta is one of those films that will divide the audience into four. There are many who will watch V for Vendetta, having never read the comic book,  and either like or dislike it. There are others who have read the comic book and will point to the word ‘adaptation’ to justify the changes – both obvious and subtle – that have been made to Alan Moore’s original. And then there are those who, having read the comic book, will be dissatisfied. I reside in the last category. Although I apologise in advance that this review is largely negative (with spoilers), as a stalwart fan of Alan Moore’s original work I have to say I was bitterly disappointed with the Wachowski’s big screen version of V for Vendetta.

The first half of the movie is a disappointing mish-mash of events that have been reordered from the comic book, revised into a fractured beginning that leads the audience to believe that they may have entered the film after the start. The introduction of masked protagonist V is poorly handled, including a tedious speech where the writers attempt to prove their intellect by using as many words beginning with ‘v’ as possible, in a gout of utter nonsense that would make The Architect proud. Indeed I half expected him to pop out from behind V’s mask and shout ‘Surprise’. Bollocks. A word used often in the movie to provide that authentic Englishness only Hollywood and movies can. Never mind that Portman’s Evey sounds like she’d be more at home in Durban or Pretoria, the irony of an American film crew attempting to produce something so classically English as V for Vendetta and failing so miserably is palpable.

Most disappointing is the lack of subtlety with which the whole movie is handled. From the cheap method with which V kills those responsible for mistreating him at Larkhill to constant American war references, the script seemed determined to batter me over the head with the obvious and blatant. It is evident throughout that the Wachowski’s have a political statement to make but for all the column inches that have been devoted to the movie’s treatment of terrorism, the script is weak and watered down in comparison with the comic book. 

This lack of subtlety is most evident in the depiction of V. The changes in his escape from Larkhill, Evey’s references to him being a monster all create an image that is bestial behind the eloquent Shakespearean references. This is reinforced by the confusion between the titular vendetta and his mission. His vendetta, with those who mistreated him at Larkhill, is personal, his mission is the opposite. However, in the movie it is the mission that is personalised and the vendetta that is depersonalised. Creating several scenes that just don’t sit right with the internal logic of the film. The casting of V is also at odds with the meaning the character V is supposed to give the narrative. I know it’s not Hugo Weaving’s fault his voice is so recognisable, I’m sure any actor would have sold their soul to be in both the Matrix and LOTR trilogies, but there is no attempt to tone down the familiar rolling ‘r’s’ and sibilant ‘s’s’ that give V an identity at odds with representing the masses. It defeats the point of V wearing a mask, a purposeful device on Moore’s part obviously lost on the writers of the movie in the rush to make it, if his voice is unique and recognisable. The lack of individuality is supposed to define V and his actions, not having that everyman cloak means the character loses his power and all his actions become personal and selfish, losing the delineation between the vendetta and his mission. 

Portman’s Evey suffers from a similar malaise of uncertainty as the film in general does. Her character swings from reviling V to wishing to help him in any way. Often these changes occur within the space of a few minutes, leaving the audience unclear where exactly Evey stands and even if she’s needed in the film. She is needed according to the script - by V, in an attempt to humanise the character by hinting at a romance that further detracts from his role as mouthpiece for the masses. Accent aside, Portman is creditable, her turn during the torture scenes is engrossing and her serenity afterwards appealing. But it is only in these brief scenes toward the climax that she shines and even then the meaning of them is obscured. I found the character of Evey to be more ambiguous than I expected, her cleaner than clean image grates and her betrayal of V to the paedophile Bishop was a real kicker, evidence of how badly the script missed the point to my mind. Her intellect and convenient knowledge of banned materials is part of a less submissive, less ignorant role that seems to have been updated with no purpose in mind, because in many ways Evey is already liberated.    

This then is the biggest problem I have with the script, the alteration of the main characters of V and Evey, as well as their relationship dynamic. I understand why they attempted to humanise V, a man in a mask who kills lots of people and blows up famous architecture isn’t going to be the easiest sell as a sympathetic hero, particularly after recent events in London, but the way in which they go about it detracts from the point of the story. Now it is in all likelihood a huge assumption to think that the Wachowski’s are trying to convey the same message Alan Moore did, but if they aren’t whatever they are trying get across, despite the sledgehammer approach on certain topics, doesn’t become obvious. There is no point at the end where you will go ‘aha I see what they were trying to say’.

More importantly you won’t really care what happens to the ‘villain’ of the piece, John Hurt’s High Chancellor. Again I don’t think you can blame the actor for having a poor role, which is what the High Chancellor is. I’m not sure what the thinking behind the change of title for the character from the Leader to High Chancellor was, maybe as a reference to Star Wars it updates the material, I don’t know, whatever the reason it doesn’t have the required impact. Seen sporadically throughout the movie, almost always on a TV set of some kind, there is no ambiguity about Hurt’s over the top performance as a dictator with Hitler-like physical features but none of the charisma, who is singularly to blame for the current fascist state of England. So whilst we are unclear to an extent as to how heroic V is, it is made clear to us that there is a definitive ‘bad-guy’ who we can root against and in doing so more easily accept V. In doing so the uneasiness over the nature of V’s actions is lessened, as is their impact.

When the conclusion comes the final scenes are, in the main, poor. V’s end is re-written to be more exciting and action-packed, with trademark bullet-time shots, yet comes across as pointless and distasteful. The superhuman element is emphasised at the cost of understanding, and although V does not murder the High Chancellor he is complicit in it, tying him to the very men he despises. Certainly following the original ending of Finch mortally wounding V and a widow killing the Leader would have been an anti-climax for the film, but a bit of brutal violence is not an adequate replacement. The crowd with masks though is a very memorable scene, and placing characters from the film behind them cleverly echoes Evey becoming V in the comic book. The ending is a microcosm of the movie - it gets the important elements wrong but has some original touches that make you wonder.    

For those who’ve never read or couldn’t care less about Alan Moore’s original there is probably more to enjoy, the explosive set-pieces are memorable and after a clunky start the dialogue picks up without ever being anything to write home about. There are strong turns from Stephen Rea as Detective Finch and Stephen Fry as Gordon. Rea offers the understated, subtle performance that Finch deserves, gaining more screen time as the movie reaches its final stop. Fry does well in a short, familiar clichéd role that steals V’s thunder in many ways. Fry and Portman though are not given enough time together to create the necessary empathy in their relationship before his departure. The tone of the movie is to be applauded, the light airy backdrops in contrast to the dark pencils of the comic book make the events even more sinister, as if to say ‘Look we can get away with this in broad daylight’. The updated setting is recognisable and familiar, leading us to believe that rather than being an alternate vision of the world, the world of V could possibly be the near future. It holds promise as a different means of exploring the message and some of the new technologies, Protheroe being a television show host for example, could have been incorporated very easily into the plot. Indeed were this to have been a clear adaptation/update then there is a lot of material with which the story could have been successfully modernised, but the Wachowski’s seem to have been caught between using the source material and going completely their own way.

I’m not going to lie, I did go into this movie with several reservations that people who I know and who’d already seen the movie tried to assuage. Nor will I deny that I define Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta as an absolute classic, but even ignoring all that this film is poor. There are some nice set-pieces and explosions, Stephen Rea as Finch is superb and there were glimpses that the updated setting could have worked – the scenes of Evey’s torture and Valerie’s letter are very powerful, yet they serve only to frustrate and force one to ruminate over what might have been. Alan Moore and David Lloyd had a lot more time to construct the comic book and tell the story, nonetheless it is the obvious things that the movie misses the mark on and in doing so falls flat. Having seen the movie twice to be sure my initial disappointment was justified and not reactionary, I’m confident in saying I won’t see it again. 

Owen Jones © 2006 

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