***½/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras B-
starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, John Hurt
screenplay by The Wachowski Brothers, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore & David Lloyd
directed by James McTeigue
by Walter Chaw As documents for the opposition go, V for Vendetta may be the ballsiest, angriest picture of the current administration, flashing without apology images of naked prisoners of the state, shackled in black hoods and held in clear acrylic boxes while a febrile talking head and his cloistered intimates (called "fingers") form a closed fist around them. It surmises a future where the government plants stories in centrally-owned media conglomerates, controlling groupthink by providing just one point of view. Woe be unto those with a critical mind because what, after all, is more dangerous to a dictatorial theocracy than a question? But more, the picture is an impassioned plea for alternative lifestyles, exposing the melodrama of Brokeback Mountain to be embarrassed, even polite, when the struggle for equal regard is something that should be undertaken with passion and brio--it's life and death, and V for Vendetta presents it as such. There are no half measures in a film that takes as its hero an eloquent monologist in a Guy Fawkes mask (Hugo Weaving), his erstwhile, reluctant sidekick a young woman, Evey (Natalie Portman), transformed through the government-sanctioned abduction of her parents and a period of torture and imprisonment into not an avenging angel, but a voice of reason. How fascinating that the reasonable solution in the picture is the destruction of Britain's Parliament on the Thames.
It gives hope that thoughtful, adult-themed, long-form comics ("graphic novels") can yet be translated to the screen as intelligent, topical, pulp-entertaining films (see also A History of Violence), with Alan Moore's Watchmen awaiting adaptation and Neil Gaiman's near-canonized "The Sandman" in perpetual turnaround. V for Vendetta works--like the best literature, the best art--as a mirror to the audience, thus what some individuals might perceive as an attack on their value systems (ones based on mysticism, intolerance, and exclusion, granted) may have others basking in a self-righteousness that, better than George Clooney's aggressively dry but well-intentioned platforms, indicts an apparent attack on common decency. It's a polarizing film, and I confess that I'm too far to one side politically by now to see it in anything other than a ideologically gratifying light, but as a film it's also well-made: slick, exhilarating and outrageous. It reminds a lot more of Fight Club than of screenwriters the Wachowski Brothers' own The Matrix, and I do wonder if, like Fight Club, it won't lose esteem as it drifts away from that extreme topicality. Still, it's useful to remember that today, V for Vendetta feels like a slap in the face and a kick in the shorts; damnit if, when the Old Bailey loses its head, I didn't feel a little like whooping with that pleasure of destructive juvenile resistance. Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.
Already scourged in some corners as an apologia for terrorism, V for Vendetta is instead a cautionary tale about how monolithic governments create revolutionaries from ordinary people when they intimately violate them. The equation couldn't be simpler, nor could the affection V has for Rowland V. Lee's The Count of Monte Cristo be a clearer brand that our beloved anarchist is something of a vengeance-driven whack-job. ("I'm sad for Mercedes," says Evey, revealing in that moment to V that she might be the more suitable instrument of rapprochement in his grand schemes. "Dantes loves revenge more than he loves her.") The seeds of the formation of our own country can be traced to being mad as hell and not taking it anymore, our beloved USA transformed in the picture into a barely-glimpsed wasteland embroiled in a civil war after a badly-contained (self-inflicted?) plague decimates its population. The "Ulcerated Sphincter of Asserica" as foaming Rush Limbaugh-esque talking head Prothero (Roger Allam) calls it, receding in the background as the Wachowskis transform Moore's treatise on Thatcher's England into a still-scathing commentary on the toll of totalitarian thought on a public reared on democratic principles. Unlawful wire-tapping made lawful, secret prisons, all-pervasive media saturation, the avian flu, philosophy as science, legislating the bedroom, and the pushing of fear as at once the latest, greatest thrill-drug and the most effective opiate of the people... There is a focus on the suppression of art (and John Hurt as the film's arch villain reminds us that he was Evey prototype Winston Smith in Michael Radford's Nineteen Eighty-Four) as the first step towards the death of individual thought--there are, in fact, so many hot-button topics wired into the piece that it's something like a miracle it doesn't collapse in on its own outrage.
But what's wonderful about V for Vendetta is that it is, itself, artful. It plays Tchaikovsky next to Cat Power next to a wistful WWII croon while Portman provides her first truly great performance as an adult. Somehow, the British accent--a stumbling block for so many actors--has freed her to indulge in her waifishness, spiced with that hint of resolve that made her child-actor turn in Leon: The Professional ever so tantalizing a(n unfulfilled) promise. By never allowing its hero a face, and by further obscuring him behind a storm of gilded words, V becomes as slippery a signifier as Thomas Pynchon's Zelig-esque heroine of the same name, reminding of some combination of that literary gadfly and Britain's own King Arthur, thought to return whenever his country needs him most. In a period in our history when the cinema is caught emulating the golden endings of the Fifties while constructing the tortured, misanthropic narratives of the Seventies, V for Vendetta has the big brass ones to make its main characters arrested, criminal (what is Evey doing out after curfew?), and invested in the overthrow of the government for, of all things, personal reasons. It's an utterly humanist picture in that sense--and a hopeful one ground in the idea that not every epoch-shattering event growing from one person with one idea has to be the World Trade Center. Sometimes they can be Bastilles. Originally published: March 17, 2006.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner brings V for Vendetta to Blu-ray in a package that's especially underwhelming if your player isn't hooked up to the Internet, which mine most certainly is not. This means that for the time being I can't access the "Director's Notebook," a BD Live feature that was incorporated into standard playback of the HD-DVD alternative as an "In Movie Experience." While I'm not convinced that Profile 1.1, the decoding technology that powers BD Live, is anything but the second coming of NUON, I'm also so grateful for the reprieve from sitting through another batch of extras that I would feel awfully disingenuous climbing atop my soapbox. Duly noted, I guess. As for the 2.40:1, 1080p transfer of the film itself, marvy though it is, the image doesn't quite "pop." I think it may have something to do with all the post-production muckety-muck, with fine detail having been steamrolled in the act of micromanaging colour and contrast. Still, saturation is delectable, particularly in the scene where Natalie Portman's Evey dresses up like Little Bo Beep to bait a lecherous priest. Nice fuchsia! Ahem.
I actually found the audio to be a bigger letdown than the video. Both the Dolby TrueHD playback and the attendant DD 5.1 track (640 kbps) lack the oomph I recall from my theatrical screening of the film. Considering V for Vendetta is pointedly bookended by explosions, any complaint about the mousiness of the mix as presented here transcends entitlement to become a criticism of the drama. Your mileage may vary. The standard (and standard-def) supps include four featurettes--"Designing the Near Future" (17 mins.), "Remember, Remember: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot" (10 mins.), "Freedom! Forever!: Making V for Vendetta" (16 mins.), and "England Prevails: V for Vendetta and the New Wave in Comics" (15 mins.)--as well as a genuinely funny "SNL Digital Short" in which Portman skewers her good-girl rep, a montage compressing the entirety of V for Vendetta into the length of Cat Power's "I Found a Reason," and the picture's theatrical trailer (in 16x9 and 5.1). Apart from the dry yet enlightening Guy Fawkes piece, the aforementioned documentary material is strictly OK, what with it having to tiptoe around not only an Alan Smithee'd Alan Moore (he's mentioned often, by name even, but without the anticipated reverence) but the camera-shy Wachowski Brothers and an inexplicably absent Hugo Weaving, too. Although it's with some hypocrisy that director James McTeigue disparages the Sin City/300 approach of trying to literalmindedly translate the comic-book aesthetic into cinematic form (the few panels we see of the V for Vendetta graphic novel could almost be stills from the film), I appreciated the sentiment and am dreading Watchmen as I type this for the very reason that it looks banally faithful to Dave Gibbons's art. Originally published: May 30, 2008.