Directed by James McTeigue. Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, Tim Pigott-Smith. Warner Bros.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Glamorous depictions of gory action violence, politically motivated killings, and blowing up government buildings; an extremely negative depiction of a corrupt cleric, including a sexual scene (no nudity); some profanity and harsh language; grisly mass-grave imagery with brief nudity.
By Steven D. Greydanus
On one level, V for Vendetta marks a return to form of sorts for the Wachowski brothers, who stumbled after the success of The Matrix with a pair of failed sequels. Directed by newcomer James McTeigue from the Wachowskis’ adaptation of the Alan Moore graphic novel, V for Vendetta recaptures something of the bold, provocative blend of intriguing themes and ultraviolent action that made The Matrix the most discussed and debated action movie since Star Wars.
Hugo Weaving, who made so much of the role of Agent Smith in the Matrix films, is a commanding presence on the strength of his voice alone as V, a masked antihero fighting fascism in a distopian future Britain. His face is hidden behind a mask representing Guy Fawkes, the 17th-century Catholic conspirator whose participation in the failed “gunpowder plot” to blow up the Houses of Parliament and end the anti-Catholic reign of James I has for four hundred years been commemorated every fifth of November by his burning in effigy all over Britain. V admires Fawkes’s anti-establishment commitment, if not his Catholic zeal, and hopes to finish the demolition work Fawkes started, picking off his enemies one by one on the side.
Playing novice-Neo to Weaving’s Morpheus is Evie (Natalie Portman), a young woman (in Moore’s story a young prostitute, here an aide at a government-controlled TV station) who gets swept up into V’s war when he rescues her from police assailants. V and Evie’s relationship doesn’t entirely work, especially in a badly misguided subplot with a rather obvious “twist” that establishes V as a bona fide psycho and makes Evie a victim of his psychosis, but Weaving and Portman have enough chemistry to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, with Weaving doing hero duty as Morpheus and hero-Neo combined, V for Vendetta is short on charismatic opposition; John Hurt plays a generically Hitler-like head of state, but he’s a stereotype, not a character.
Most seriously, one crucial ingredient in The Matrix’s success has been left behind: open-endedness to different interpretive frameworks. Fans and philosophy students endlessly debate whether the world of The Matrix is most influenced by Eastern mysticism or Cartesian philosophy, Christianity or gnosticism, humanism or post-humanism. No such debates will be occurring over V for Vendetta, which weighs down what could have been a thought-provoking dystopian scenario with leaden specificity and sanctimonious ideo-political commentary.
Comic-book legend Moore, who calls himself an anarchist, originally wrote V for Vendetta in part to protest the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. However, Moore has also said in a recent interview that the two poles of his story were not “Left Wing or Right Wing,” but “the two more absolute extremes” of “anarchy and fascism.”
Moore’s villains were full-blown fascists modeled on the Nazis, members of a party called Norsefire (presumably a reference to the role of Norse mythology in Nazi culture), complete with racial-purity laws and aggressive persecution of homosexuals. Such elements perhaps gave Moore’s story a universality and resonance well beyond a critique of Thatcher conservatism.
The Wachowskis retain some of the Nazi stylings, including the bad guys’ red-and-black color scheme, cross/swastika-inspired logo, and Hurt’s Hitler-like rantings. Yet, significantly, they drop the racial-purity theme, and replace the references to Norse mythology with vicious fundamentalist Christian stereotyping.
Throw in some topical allusions to the war on terror and the Patriot Act — black hoods thrown over the heads of prisoners, anti-Muslim prejudice, covert electronic surveillance of citizens — and you’ve got a ham-fisted parody of the Bush administration. It was in part due to this recasting of the story in terms of “current American neo-conservatism vs. current American liberalism” rather than fascism vs. anarchy that Moore dissociated himself from the film and had his name withdrawn.
In Nazi Germany, homosexuality was persecuted for state and ideology reasons, as an impediment to the propagation of the Aryan race. By replacing racial ideology with fundamentalist rhetoric, the film gives the theme of persecution of homosexuals — stepped up in the film by the addition of a covertly gay character who keeps up appearances by entertaining young women — an overtly anti-Christian twist. Moral affirmation of homosexuality, even identification with homosexuals, becomes the necessary alternative to active persecution; belief that homosexuality is objectively disordered, or that same-sex “marriage” is a contradiction in terms, puts you on the side of the concentration camp officials.
This picture would hardly be complete without a Catholic-bashing depiction of a corrupt, morally dissolute clergyman, and V for Vendetta delivers in spades, with one of the most flagrant offenders I can think of. Here the comic book supplies the ready-made whipping boy of Bishop Lilliman, a pedophile whom in Moore’s original story V murders with an arsenic-laced communion wafer. The movie offers an alternative sacramental profanation, with a disgusting scene in which the bishop reveals that he likes to “play confession” with the young girls (as young as possible) his aides obtain for him on a regular basis.
Later we learn that Lilliman was complicit in the regime’s crimes against humanity, including the Mengele-like prisoner experiments that somehow made V who or what he is. Though the cleric’s role in the film is brief, it packs as much anti-Catholic punch as possible, with traditional Latin chant and soaring Gothic pillars framing the bishop and his highly deferential aide as they discuss the age of the girl waiting in the bishop’s quarters.
(Side note: Yes, technically the bishop would probably be Anglican, not Catholic. Nevertheless, the bishop’s highly traditional, strongly hierarchical ecclesiastical milieu, not to mention the whole pedophilia sex scandal bit, is strongly evocative of the Hollywood Catholic Church [I’m sure the Anglicans have their troubles like everyone else, but it’s only the Catholics anyone makes a big deal about]. At least Catholicism is indicted by association.)
It’s ironic that a story that romanticizes a Catholic extremist’s acts against an anti-Catholic regime would itself be so anti-Catholic. After being burned in effigy for 400 years, you’d think Guy Fawkes would appreciate a little rehabilitation, but he could hardly approve of the way the Wachowskis have done it.
Obviously, the most volatile implication of the contemporary American undertones of the film adaptation is the post-9/11 resonance of making a political statement by blowing up a building, especially a government building. Is V a terrorist or a freedom fighter? I don’t really care enough to debate the point. Let’s just say the prospect of a guy in a mask bent on blowing up historic London landmarks to score political points against an evil Christian government guilty of oppressing Muslims doesn’t make me feel much like cheering.