"Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot..." The child's rhyme, learnt at primary age at least in the 1960s, forms one of the motifs of the film, which starts with the execution in the seventeenth century of Guy Fawkes, the chief bombmaker of the Catholic ring that planned to destroy Parliament under James I of England. It then segues into a near future in England ruled by a fascistic party under a "High Chancellor" and apparently menaced by a man in a Guy Fawkes costume and mask who blows up government buildings.
Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) is running late one night when she is intercepted by a gang of government "Fingermen" for being out after curfew. The Fingermen are about to rape her when a masked figure, quoting Shakespeare, beats them into submission with knives and karate and then persuades her to come with him to watch the Old Bailey court being destroyed by explosives. The following day, while the police under Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) are closing in on the television building where Evey works to apprehend her, "V" takes over the television channel and announces that one year from today, on November 5th, he will blow up Parliament, and invites all viewers to participate by meeting in Parliament Square. Thereafter "V" follows his agenda of targeting individuals and government property, while the government and police attempt to track him down and find his true identity.
In terms of technical execution and acting the film is well done. Those expecting to see much of Hugo Weaving should be disappointed, as he never removes the mask, but his presence is in most of the film. Portman does fairly well as Evey and suffered for her art by having her head shaved for a prison scene. John Hurt doesn't disappoint either with a rabid performance as the rather unhinged High Chancellor, but the most sinister villain is Tim Piggott-Smith's Cready, the Home Secretary who exudes the menace of a gangster. Top marks also to Stephen Rea as a rather weary but shrewd detective caught up in the politics of an unpleasant regime, rather like Rutger Hauer in Fatherland.
In terms of sex and violence the film is probably not for pre-adolescent viewers, especially with regards to those families that disapprove of homosexuality, although this is not graphically shown. There is however plenty of blood as knives are flashed around, although again it is cinematic rather than especially gory.
Interestingly, the film was disowned by Alan Moore but acclaimed by the illustrator of the graphic novels David Lloyd.
Although it can be viewed simply as an action film, it is rather hard to ignore some of the political and religious themes of V for Vendetta. As envisaged by the creater of the graphic novels Alan Moore, the main theme was to be the contrast between anarchism and fascism. The novels were originally conceived in the early eighties and inevitably the political landscape had changed in the decades between them and the film, but the filmmakers sought to add contemporary touches such as the fear of biological warfare (re the post 9/11 anthrax scare), terrorism (9/11), Islam (ditto), and sexuality and religious fundamentalism. It may now seem somewhat ironic to some that in the film the High Chancellor Adam Sutler originally started out as a Conservative, since the most recent controversies in the UK have been to do with New Labour's relationships with Parliament and ancient liberties. Certainly the uneasy balancing act between liberty and security in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7 forms a plausible backdrop to the hypothesis of V.
The danger of course is that some might see "V" as a role model. In the film it turns out that his masked disguise is not only concealment of identity but also of his disfigurement after being used in horrific medical experiments at a detention camp and in the explosion and fire that allowed him to escape. Thus for twenty years his vendetta has been tinged with personal animosity, at least in the beginning, against the people who did this to him, and one can understand such a thirst for revenge even without condoning it. It is however a big leap to see him as a heroic figure worthy of emulation. Blowing up Parliament may wring some smiles and grins from many in the audience, especially when some MP or other is exposed as a crook, but is it a viable option? One only has to look at countries with emasculated governments, such as Somalia, to see that no government is even worse than bad government. Of course, in extreme situations bad government may have to be removed. In much of the world the ballot box exists for this purpose, but many American citizens in 1776 chose to exercise the right to bear arms against the Crown, just as von Stauffenberg in July 1944 decided that assassination was the only option to remove Hitler (to whom ballot boxes were admittedly very far from mind).
The Wikipedia article notes that a number of Christian conservative groups were unhappy with the film. Certainly it would be easy to get the impression from the film in a number of ways that it is anti-religious, for example Adam Sutler's alleged deep religiosity, the juxtaposition of strength, unity and faith in the party slogan, and the corrupt paedophile bishop Anthony. However, the type of religion mentioned in the film is fairly vague, not being cited as a particular Christian creed or denomination, and could almost equally well apply to the sort of "volkisch" beliefs held by Far Right parties. In the original graphic novels, the High Chancellor's strongest feelings were apparently more directed towards the government's computer system than a deity. The promotion of Bishop Anthony to Westminster Abbey in the film seems to have been a payback for his role in the sinister Larkhill camp experiments rather than for his religion (or lack thereof), and one should remember that under totalitarian regimes high church offices are often filled by political placements (or at least compliants) than those more logically suited for the role. Perhaps there is greater substance in the charge (if it can be considered such) that the film portrays homosexuality positively. Certainly the prison diary of Valerie Page gives a sympathetic portrayal of a stable lesbian relationship, contrasted with the violence of state repression against homosexual people of either sex, while the suppressed homosexual Deitrich (Stephen Fry) has apparently lost his urges partly through years of denial. However, to say that the State should not use violent repression against same-sex relationships is something that most people including religious conservatives would probably agree on. The film does not per se go on to argue that same-sex sexual relationships are a good thing, although the suspicion must inevitably rise given Alan Moore's anarchist leanings.
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