Alan Moore's V For Vendetta is a sometimes improbable but still potent cautionary tale about the constrictive social and political environments that can arise in times of crisis, or simply result from Things Tightening Up in general. It was a shrewd marketing move to release such a film in a post-9/11, terrorist-touchy environment, although it was allegedly in the works when the Wachowski brothers chose to develop the Matrix series instead, apparently mindful of the timing.
It appeared in 1989 after Alan Moore had made such splashes at DC Comics with Swamp Thing and then Watchmen that completing V was a natural move. The original series appeared as part of an episodic British title called "Warrior" and was never completed as a result of the book's cancellation. The return of illustrator David Lloyd allowed it to be released as a finished work.
Like most films drawn from books, V For Vendetta makes certain compromises, but the fundamentals remain gratifyingly intact. Of course, that assumes that you have a taste for dark, violent, politically-based dramas which take liberties with the logistics of time and space. There are a few rough edges that seem implausibly convenient, but they are by no means fatal. Film is by definition linear, with few exceptions; books are more lateral, which is where V suffers a bit from the translation, although it also compensates well by presenting some of the book's quick cuts between related scenes as they unfold. Only the foaming Chancellor is monochromatic. The other characters present with satisfying dimension.
V's use of a clownish Guy Fawkes mask as his disguise is an interesting device in several ways, not only pointedly referencing the plot to destroy Parliament in 1605, but bringing into it a bit of unease as a comically attired figure commits decidedly uncomical acts. There is an aspect of the Trickster Coyote to him, even as he sticks violent pins into a system that went downhill from proper sobriety in its function to one of a constant seige mentality. Part of his appeal lies in the fact that unlike most anti-heroes, V has a certain dry wit, sadness and artistic awareness that sets him apart. He knows what basic human value means and how it has been assaulted in his world. He knows how precious abstract things such as music can be. Because he is not self-centered or mindlessly brutal, his violence is set on an uneasy yet appealing level.
It is also hard to position the fact that he tortures his charge Evey at one point, not at all a heroic thing, yet he does so in the name of bringing her to life as a person. Setting her up in a mock cell and making her think she is in official custody, he slips her thin rolls of toilet paper bearing the last, affecting words of a lesbian actress who died in the detention camp where he was essentially born. Her poignant observations are pivotal to the story: "But it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, yet its all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us. But within that inch, we are free." Without that pointed bit of humanity, the story would have far less resonance. His cruelty has a purpose and brings her to a needed position of clarity.
One regrettable change in the film is that V's speech on British television early on is greatly curtailed and much less effective, compared to the colorful piece in the book. It was not only searing, but quite funny in places. In the book, its the best showcase of V's eloquence. It also makes a more clear distinction between the ill-defined "anarchy" people think of as mere chaos and its stated political goal, a shift to a better, more stable system minus corrupt overseers and thus in no need of "a good shaking up."
One could argue with the decisions that left certain story aspects out of the film, although what was retained was presented so well, those omissions are a bit puzzling. The time was available to show the former detention camp commandant's fetish for a bizarre collection of dolls, for instance, but it was excised. Likewise, the segment where a popular TV talk show host presents a V skit that jabs at the administration's inability to catch him is presented very well, along with its brutal consequences. It is key in showing that severe regimes cannot stand scrutiny, will not tolerate satire and consider crushing response a standard tool. It serves the film handily in clarifying the depth of the government's mania.
Also in clear view are government and police officials for whom the brutality and absolutism are a rough fit at best. Those characters are an important element, as there are those who enter into public service with positive drives that get skewed by the hard edges they encounter. Some of those edges are part of the realities; some of them are contrived by people with unsavory agendas, large and small. The two central detectives represent those within the System who sometimes keep its less sane aspects in check and ironically, have much to do with the maintenance of order the suited boogeymen would otherwise bend into more drastic shapes.
Several direct visual aspects of the book made it to the screen as well, which is sure to be appreciated by those who read it before the film appeared. David Lloyd's original vision deserved to be applied. Certain framing moments important to the narrative are not brushed off, but instead presented faithfully. While a certain amount of action is a given in most stories, Lloyd found his way to a fine graphic presentation of how non-glamorous, sudden and flat violence really is. The film keeps that in place, despite the "Matrix"-style, slo-motion elegance of a scene near the end.
V For Vendetta could be seen as somewhat derivative in places, since the classic righteous vigilante character has been a theme more than once, as Moore acknowledges in a commentary about its creation. V has clearly been driven mad in a specific fashion as a result of his detention camp experiences and his violence presented as necessary. Its clearly murder to drive a huge knife through someone's gizzard, yet here, it is war-time killing and once-removed from the usual heat involved. The sullenly compliant populace is presented as disbelieving and contemptuous of the party line, well-primed to be catalyzed by V's actions. There is also an ambivalence in evidence, as he takes clear vengance on certain tormentors in ironic ways while seeking to unlock the nation's shackles. He is a patriot cut from odd cloth. In the book, he dispatches an evil priest with a cyanide communion wafer, which is not specified on the screen.
He is no traditional hero, but his "villainy" was essentially foisted on him, not grown from within. The grey areas are classic in allowing you to see the world through his eyes. His artistic sensibilities are also give their proper due in his home, the Shadow Gallery, where he has preserved numerous books, paintings, films and records of banned materials. He is not acting as he does from the cold stance of the government, but from seeing the dire need to recover the things of passion and warmth that decide and often balance out the tone of the world.
It is easy to draw comparisons to the current concerns about increasing conservatism in general and where the line is drawn between basic order and questionable, excessive controls. "Enemies" can be dauntingly real or conveniently designed and as history clearly shows, for the sake of personal gain, both will be exploited, even in popular movies. However, "V" generally flows well with little in the way of dragging moments. Those who have read the book will see the bones of it intact on the screen. People who have not read it but take it up will almost surely be pleased at seeing the story properly fleshed out and made more clear. Where the book ends on an ambiguous note, with certain things settled in one sense or another but the whole clearly not resolved, the film chooses a somewhat upbeat stopping place. It seems aimed at the expectation of the general movie-going audience that things be tied up neatly, yet the story really centers on a process where there are no absolute answers and the big labels of Good and Bad often take a back seat to the fluid successes of the day's thrusts and parries.
Natalie Portman all but excels in her role as Evey Hammond. She well-serves the character's shocks and fragilities, yet also delivers the guts and resolve Evey develops over time. Its a high-water mark for an actress to set so early in her career. Hugo Weaving's voicing of V, whose real face is never shown, makes the mask all but expressive. His eloquence and woven depths are part of the appeal, as terrorists (or anarchists, if you prefer) are usually presented as grim and often less than bright. His liquid tones are right on the mark. By contrast, John Hurt's meaningful skills are somewhat blunted because he is cast as the Chancellor (comparable to the President in this instance), a man who raves with rhetoric as often as he merely speaks. The book version is greatly enhanced by showing his peculiarly personal relationship with Fate, the government's master computer and central spying tool. Hurt could have made that stick handsomely. Still, he gives a quality presentation of a character who is allowed to show only one hard angle (and whose role was obviously chosen due to his performance in the 1984 film version of 1984). It is "just" a movie, but one which leaves you sitting and pondering it after the last frame. Clearly, people are polarized by the story. It makes simplistic comments about government gone wrong and obviously elevates the romantic aspects of resisting The System. One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist and the results in either case will be spun to suit the speaker. However, the real core of it is the same as that of any good story. Its about deciding what you stand for and what you will not stand for, about coming through hard experiences with enough of your heart and mind intact to still be effective at the key points and bringing music back into a world that has lapsed too much into mere noise. V For Vendetta succeeds on all points.
Hey, I need a new tattoo; I think that mask-rendition of Guy Fawkes is on the short list.