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Some subversive truths for our dark time


The latest movie to send the conservative crybabies sobbing into their bound copies of the Patriot Act originates in, of all places, a comic book, or as they like to call them in the higher literary circles, a graphic novel. For a political allegory to grow out of so apparently plebeian a form suggests not only a new depth to the comics themselves, but also the potential in popular art to mirror some of the peculiar tensions of its time.

The film, and presumably its source, threatens a number of contemporary assumptions --- about politics, government, conformity --- in a boldly subversive story of tyranny and terrorism, hardly the usual corroborative vision of so much popular entertainment.

V for Vendetta takes place in a nation governed by a right wing theocracy preaching a crazed nationalism that demands absolute loyalty, enforcing its edicts with secret police, secret surveillance of the citizenry, and secret prisons, where the authorities torture and punish the inmates without charges or trials.

Although it sounds like America today, in fact the film is set in an England of the near future, where Tony Blair's policies have spawned a dictatorship reminiscent of Orwell's 1984. In the great comic book tradition, a costumed and masked avenger appears, a victim of the regime who calls himself V and wears the face of Guy Fawkes, who attempted to blow up Parliament in 1605 and was hanged, drawn, and quartered for treason.

V (Hugo Weaving) rescues a young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) from potential assault by a trio of police thugs and demonstrates his power by blowing up the Old Bailey on November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, to the tune of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, which he has programmed on the government's ubiquitous speakers. He announces to the people of Britain that he plans a greater demonstration a year hence, on the 400th anniversary of Guy Fawkes's attempt.

The picture then settles into a number of plots, all connected to the search for V, which demand considerable, often clumsy exposition in the form of flashbacks and the awkward device of characters recounting personal and political histories to each other. Growing increasingly hysterical, the Chancellor of England (John Hurt), commands the Chief Inspector of Police (Stephen Rea) to find the identity and location of the terrorist, a task that leads the detective (and thus the audience) to an understanding of his quarry's motivation and of the events that created the current situation.

Some confusion results from the mixture of the primary subject of V's planned attack, the relationship between him and Evey that consequently places her in danger, and the progress of Inspector Finch's investigation. The film often betrays its debt to its original source in its curious combination of sophistication and juvenility. The terrorist, for example, dwells in one of those lairs beloved of comic book writers since Superman's Fortress of Solitude; equipped only with a battery of knives and some martial arts maneuvers, V constantly defeats whole squads of heavily armed soldiers; by unexplained means, he manages to spirit away a number of great books and historic artifacts to that comfy lair, and accumulates enough explosives to complete Guy Fawkes's original plan.

Although, as the handwringers complain, the movie makes a hero of a terrorist intent on blowing up public buildings, those same whiners cheered Independence Day's alien attacks on the White House and the Capitol back in 1996. The greater relevance of V for Vendetta depends upon its numerous parallels to current history. It alludes to such contemporary practices as rendition and waterboarding, the sheeplike acquiescence of the populace in the erosion of liberties, the bogus terror alerts, the demagoguery and sycophancy of the media; in a nice touch, it even features a drug addicted television bully reminiscent of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly.

Ultimately V for Vendetta may well influence as well as reflect some trends in popular culture. The Guy Fawkes mask, with its frozen, sinister grin could become a favorite this Halloween, and the defiant red V that the title character's followers paint over government proclamations may replace the anarchists' A as a symbol of disaffection and dissent.

Though frequently melodramatic and silly, the picture also entertainingly suggests some important and subversive truths for our dark time.

V for Vendetta (R), directed by James McTeigue, is playing at Culver Ridge 16, Eastview Mall 13, Greece Ridge Cinema, Henrietta 18, Pittsford Cinema, Tinseltown, Webster 12.