Saturday, March 18, 2006

V for Vendetta (McTeigue, 2005)

V for Vendetta, the directing debut for James McTeigue, is a film that nonetheless takes a pair of enormous risks and delivers an unusual blend of mainstream action film and radical political provocation. The most obvious risk McTeigue (and his screenwriters, The Wachowski Brothers) take is to leave their central character – known only by the letter ‘V’ – behind a rather ridiculous harlequin mask depicting 17th century British revolutionary Guy Fawkes. Perhaps even more shocking, it allows V to be part charismatic renaissance man and part ruthless terrorist. What is more, the film does not suggest that V is in any way insane or use his character to explore the dual nature of man’s psychology – light vs. dark. The actions he takes – even when they result in deaths – are carefully thought out and cause him no sense of regret once they have been completed. Strangely, his path of destruction leaves the viewer with no regrets either because V has been so effectively constructed as an old school romantic hero. And when I say romantic, I mean it in the sense of Romanticism with a capital ‘R’ – the 18th century intellectual movement that placed the individual spirit above strict rationalism.

The world of V for Vendetta borrows heavily from Orwell’s 1984, but has a unique personality strong enough to stand on its own. I like how this futuristic Britain has small technological advancements and changes in vocabulary, but, for the most part, is very recognizable to us in the present. It also contains ideas and sentiments that mirror contemporary politics; however, I don’t think it can be said that V for Vendetta is a parable or an allegory. We may draw connections to our own times because the film is so effective at exploring its themes, but the universe that the film is primarily concerned with is its own. In other words, V for Vendetta is not about Bush’s America, but it most certainly speaks to Bush’s America. In the real world, the emotional sweep of fascistic political bullying must be fought with cool logic and reason – things that unfortunately don’t always capture the public imagination the way they should. In this fictional world, the conviction in knowing that beauty, art, justice and the human spirit must survive in the face of oppression is the fuel that lights powder kegs both metaphorical and literal. I don’t believe that V for Vendetta is a dangerous film in that it endorses violence as a means towards social change. On the contrary, I believe that it is a film that makes a convincing plea for those dissatisfied with their government to object with passion. Notably, there are several shots of ordinary citizens sitting in their homes grumbling at what they see being presented on the news. By the end of the film, these seemingly insignificant characters become involved in a manner that is deeply stirring.

I was very surprised by my reaction to V is for Vendetta. It is a film that satisfies on a variety of levels. Perhaps most importantly, it is highly entertaining with only a few scenes that seem to drag the film’s running time out too long. Beyond that, it is a film that truly contains some challenging ideas and insights. It uses our love of seeing the human spirit triumph in the face of adversity and then gives it a wicked, meaningful twist. Most surprising to me of all, I found that I had a deep emotional response to this film – not necessarily to the characters, but to the glorious expression of the film’s core message. As V, Hugo Weaving is fantastic, using his voice to seduce and inspire though his face is never seen. Natalie Portman shows that she is finally starting to live up to her early promise, negotiating her character’s transformation with ease. And the film is also blessed to have three superior supporting performances from Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry and John Hurt. It will be easy for some to nitpick V for Vendetta as it is certainly not perfect in every moment, but no matter. The heights it attains in its greatest moments more than make up for its infrequent lapses. V for Vendetta is a film that consistently rises above expectations and delivers more substance than one might reasonably expect. At long last, I am able to forgive the Wachowskis for The Matrix Revolutions.



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