A Political Parable With Swordfights

‘V for Vendetta’ is an action-adventure film that might just inspire you

V for Vendetta Directed by: James McTeigue Written by:
the Wachowskis Starring: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, John Hurt

You don’t find many films based on comic book characters that really stick with you.  The Batman series started with Michael Keaton playing a brooding Caped Crusader and ended with George Clooney doing a fair impression of Adam West in the campy 1960s TV show.  The X-Men, Fantastic 4, the Hulk, and Spiderman all got the big-screen treatment to varying degrees of success, but none of them would stand accused of being thought-provoking.

V for Vendetta is a very different comic-book-hero film.  Based on writer Alan Moore’s ‘graphic novel,’ as comic books are now called, V has a purpose.  The cause of his vendetta is a major plot point, so I won’t divulge it, but it puts him at extreme odds with a totalitarian regime in Great Britain in the near future.

As written by Moore, the regime was inspired by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s, every bit as reactionary, hard-hearted and anti-labor as the Reagan Administration, but without the sunshiny rhetoric and the 1984 Summer Olympics to put a happy face on it.  This film adaption by the Wachowskis, the brother team responsible for The Matrix and its sequels, is more reminscent of the Bush Administration.
Examples of the regime’s treachery could have come from today’s newspaper: secret tribunals, secret prisons, political scapegoats ‘disappeared’ and tortured, a too- cozy relationship between Big Business and government, TV blowhards and corrupt religious leaders helping the government do its dirty work, and a ruthless political henchman pulling the strings.

Against this regime battles V, played by Hugo Weaving, known for his roles as Agent Smith in the ‘Matrix’ series and Elrond, king of the Elves in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.  He hides behind the mask of Guy Fawkes, the 17th century anarchist who tried to blow up London’s Parliament building in 1605.  Quoting Shakespeare and showing considerable dexterity with knives, he seeks his revenge on those who did him wrong and hold the people down with an iron fist. He is aided by Evey, a young woman who has reasons of her own to hate the government, but is too caged by fear to do anything about it.  Evey is brilliantly played by Natalie Portman, who stretches her action-film cred beyond Star Wars Episodes I-III, and shows considerable depth.  When V rescues Evey and helps her escape from her fear, Portman transforms into an everywoman hero.

(It is wrenching to watch Portman genuinely sob while her hair is shorn and then appear in a shapeless prison smock, looking worn and emaciated, especially in light of the fact that she is proudly Jewish.  Given that the film was made in Berlin, one suspects she did not have much trouble finding her motivation.  The evocative imagery, one assumes, did not come about by accident.)

Into this fray comes Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) as Chief Inspector Finch, the cop who wants to catch V . More compelling is Finch’s desire to uncover the truth, which High Chancellor Sutler, played by John Hurt (The Elephant Man), wants to keep hidden at all costs.

Sutler’s chief tool is fear, and compliant media repeat government claims they know to be lies. V is no superhero out to solve the people’s problems.  Rather, he attempts to free them to solve their own.  Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned in this: the public knows that the government is up to no good and the media is lying about it.  When V presents an opportunity for them to do something about it, the government gets very, very nervous.

Finch is part of Sutler’s inner circle, and knows where this is headed: ‘What always happens when people with guns are confronted by people without guns?’ (Finch, like Rea in real life, is of Irish extraction, adding another layer of political resonance to this line.)

The result is a powerful and moving climax.

V for Vendetta owes a debt to George Orwell’s 1984, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and any number of cautionary tales about government power and the public who surrender to it too easily. Like those books, the film does not resolve itself in a nice, button-down ending, but leaves open what happens next.  Although some of the dialogue is political cliche (‘People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.’) the message is more textured.  Building a just society doesn’t lend itself to facile resolutions.

V for Vendetta does not insult its audience with a ‘Hollywood’ happy ending. While you are likely to feel good as the credits roll, you are also likely to feel inspired and, hopefully, maybe a little bit like you’ve been sprung from a cage.

Dave Saldana is Communications Director for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.


Leave a comment