Can terrorism ever be justified? V for Vendetta has a big question at its core, but Kate Taylor is unsure of the answers the film provides.
Under the gaze of the London Eye and opposite the Houses of Parliament, County Hall stands grandly on the bank of the Thames. As head of the GLC in the early 1980s, Ken Livingstone would post a billboard of London’s rising unemployment figures on the roof, blighting the view from Thatcher’s window, and antagonising the Conservative government. Today however, the main hall is temporarily occupied by the creators of V for Vendetta, a film that seeks to reclaim Guy Fawkes plot to blow up Parliament; there’s treason in the air.
“I’d like to think a lot of people in government would see this film and have a little thought about what extreme government can do to citizens and what positions the citizens find themselves forced into,” states Stephen Rea, who plays the detective dispatched to bring V, the film’s vigilante anti-hero, to justice.
Key cast and filmmakers are gathered in a room regaled in the flags of the film’s totalitarian government, with a giant V mask looming overhead. Stephen Fry is master of ceremonies. The atmosphere suggests a heightened regard for this action film and it is quickly and unanimously agreed by the panel that the film is trying to tackle something significant – beyond how Natalie Portman looks with a crew cut. This film, they say, is prescient and here to spark debate. It is, Rea claims, “An intervention into something we are living through.”
For audiences primed by the recent spate of political filmmaking, this may seem like a welcome addition to the canon, but hang fire. V for Vendetta is a resolutely explosion-filled popcorn-friendly action film; a genre not traditionally associated with current affairs – beyond the changing accents of villains to reflect political foes of America. So forget the small-scale sophistication of Good Night, and Good Luck and think big blockbuster territory, more in line with the apocalyptic climate change disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow. The science (or in this case the politics) may be a bit iffy but it will be seen by millions more people than will ever hear of Syriana.
What gives V for Vendetta its edge is that it is adapted from the graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. Moore, who has already suffered the cinematic renderings of his comics From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has steered clear of the project and renounced Hollywood, but Lloyd remained supportive. Further non-conformist credibility is leant by the fact it is the Wachowski brothers, creators of The Matrix trilogy and possessors of a wide subversive streak, who have done the adapting.
The story is set in a fascist London of the near-future, and centres around Evey (Natalie Portman), a young woman rescued from secret police when she defies a curfew to cross the city. Her rescuer V (Hugo Weaving), is an enigmatic masked man (fond of Shakespeare and indie chanteuse Cat Power), who introduces Evey to his complex worldview and plot to blow up parliament. Evey finds her own political awakening as V battles his personal demons, setting on a murderous spree. Meanwhile it is detective Finch (Stephen Rea) who carries the story forward, trying to stop V’s plans while the fireworks and dramatic flashbacks spiral noisily around him.
The film’s most salient point is that totalitarian regimes can occur by degree, and by consent, as a culture of fear pervades and people willingly accept the loss of their civil rights in return for a sense of protection. Here Fry, who plays Deitrich, a talk show host who must keep his sexuality and copy of the Koran secret from the regime, points to the controversial Prevention of Terrorism bill currently going though UK legislation and the USA Patriot Act, both giving governments unprecedented access to information. “The film doesn’t directly address them, but it looks at issues of the individual and the State,” says Fry, pointing at films such as Zardoz and Logan’s Run as dystopian future-set counterparts. As V opines in the film “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
But while the big points made by the films Fry mentions were universal, the most controversial elements of V for Vendetta lie in the specifics. It is the film’s near-nowness that proves worrying. Unlike even the political allegory of Farenheit 451, with its real books consumed in flames, this film features an uneasy mix of contemporary and historical references.
Presumably designed by director John McTiegue for audiences who need a little help to decipher how incisive and relevant the film is, the mish-mash is unsettling. We have the mass detainment, medical tests and open graves of the Holocaust, and detainees with their heads’ bagged and orange uniforms evoking Guatanamo Bay. The film is cut with what seems to be real footage of police riots, and the Tube bombs. And September 11 looms in the portentous assertion that blowing up a building has the power to change the world. What makes this striking is that it is uttered with relish not by the villainous government, but by V, the man of the people.
As to the still sensitive subject of the 7th July London bombings, how ready are UK audiences to welcome a plot point involving an underground train packed with explosives? Director McTiegue is unwilling to be drawn, “We’d finished shooting in London before the bombings. It had no impact on the cutting room floor. You go with the material you have.”
V for Vendetta will certainly be read differently in different territories and by different political camps. The comic book was written in the 1980s and was a reaction to Thatcherism, but by using contemporary references the film offers a series of direct readings on the current War on Terror. The film’s ideological starting point seems in line with the BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares, the shadowy government is full of ‘spin doctors’ willing to manufacture fear to control its citizens. But a series of hysterical leaps see it spiralling into a rampant paranoia - at one point presenting Avian Flu as a Wag the Dog-style government conspiracy.
This rampant mistrust is confused and the danger lies in whose arguments the film will be used to defend. While you get the impression the filmmakers are none too pleased with US foreign policy, the fascist State they depict - one of government controlled single faith media and citizens persecuted because of their faith and sexuality, makes as good a case as any for bombing Saddam Hussein. It also has about as much of a clue regarding exit strategy. The logic runs that after a government is overthrown people will unite through symbolism. And the freedom they gain will be the right to be an individual, that capitalist unit of consumption. But this is never really thought through, for V flits between anarchism and nihilism. His violent self-elected vigilante, as admired by Evey, is no great leap away from a suicide bomber.
Alternative forms of protest are swiftly dismissed as hopeless. Evey is an orphan whose parents were peaceful activists disappeared for giving out leaflets. Bizarrely the film seems to chastise them as ineffectual and selfish for choosing their values over their daughter. The film suggests there is no collective resistance movement, nor ability for citizens to self organise without the leadership of a brave and charismatic man who wears a long black coat. This adolescent male fantasy takes the film’s anti-authoritarian stance to the political level of petulant teenage door-slamming.
But while some of the film’s rhetoric can be easily dismissed as bonkers, and V is certainly indulged as mad man as well as genius, the most unpalatable aspect of the film revolves around its portrayal of torture. There is an explicit suggestion that while torture can brutalise and damage, it can also make people free of fear, and unlock human potential.
Portman however, is philosophical about her character’s transformation, “Coming from Israel, it was very interesting for me to consider the mindset of someone who goes from being non-violent to being drawn towards using violence to express her political beliefs. And I enjoyed the fact that it was a complicated journey that can be interpreted on many different levels; maybe Evey is being manipulated, maybe she’s finding her true self. I appreciated that sort of complicated view. It was something I’d been thinking about a lot – what would make someone want to do this sort of thing?”
Beyond the film’s political pretensions, it certainly satisfies in its Friday night popcorn remit however. The pyrotechnics offer a cathartic thrill and the film is loud and rousing, worth the booking to see it on its simultaneous release on IMAX screens. And action fans can rejoice in the fetishised Matrix-style slow motion violence, a camera angle from inside the barrel of a gun, and a spectacular 22,000-piece domino rally. That the film is also contentious enough to spark debate is an accomplishment.
Joel Silver, the producer also responsible for the Lethal Weapon franchise and the first two Die Hard films, puts it bluntly, “I’ve made a lot of stupid action films in my life and will always try to make stupid action films, but I think this one is a very smart film. I think that people will feel differently when they see this. It makes you think about things that are going on. There’s a lot of dialogue, more than I’m used to. And we do blow up a lot of buildings again, but here the characters talk about it a little more.”
P for Portman
Her favourite book is Lolita and relative to the average she would describe herself as ‘on the politically aware side.’ So what’s a Nabakov wielding smart cookie like Natalie Portman doing in a flick like this?
“When I first received the script I was so shocked by the fact that a big Hollywood action movie could actually have substance and something that’s provocative. It was going to make people feel very strong things and think strong things, whatever those various reactions will be. And I thought ‘This is crazy, I want to do this!’”