In V for Vendetta, the UK is ruled by a fascist government – not such an enormous leap of the imagination. That’s a joke, I don’t really think David Cameron is a fascist, please don’t deport me. A terrorist named V (Hugo Weaving) meets a girl named Evey (Natalie Portman), and together they plot to bring down the government, Guy Fawkes style.
Based on the celebrated graphic novel by Northampton eccentric Alan Moore, V for Vendetta feels like a wasted opportunity. It could be the Wachowskis’ script or James McTeigue’s direction, or a combination of the two, but the whole thing seems stilted from the start. It’s poorly paced, tonally confused and meanders around for over two hours. Worst of all is Portman, who hams it up like a Doctor Who companion. Actually, I’ve just realised what V for Vendetta reminds me of – it’s a really long episode of Doctor Who! This tone sits awkwardly with the dark subject matter, leaving you wishing that the filmmakers had been braver. Fortunately, the excellent Stephen Rea plays Inspector Finch and it’s him who keeps the film interesting. There’s a good movie in there somewhere – one that’s 90 minutes long, an 18 certificate and completely cuts out Natalie Portman.
It does present us with a disturbing dystopia, which isn’t decrepit or alien like that of many of these films. In fact what makes it so disturbing is the resemblance this Britain bears to our own. It’s an eerily recognisable future, albeit one where Natalie Portman wanders around saying things like “I can’t breathe! Asthma!” But like lots of these other films, we follow the journey of a character – in this case Finch – who starts out in support of the system and ends up turning against it. Though it’s not quite clear why he’d been a member of the fascist party for 27 years without realising that they were a bunch of dicks.
With iconography and behaviour that strongly invokes the Nazis, the government uses surveillance to silence any and all opposition; there’s a violently enforced curfew, abusive secret police and even cruel medical experimentation. Although the graphic novel was written in the 1980s, the film came out in 2005, giving it a whole new post-911 dimension. In fact Alan Moore criticised this element of the adaptation, arguing that it changed the anarchist message of the source; “It’s been turned into a Bush-era parable … a thwarted and frustrated and perhaps largely impotent American liberal fantasy.” It works as a critique of neo-conservatism, with the images of torture and interrogation invoking those we’ve seen from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, but Moore was writing about fascism and about England.
Most significantly, and more to the approval of Alan Moore, V for Vendetta‘s famous mask has been appropriated by hacktivist group Anonymous. With their “cyber-terrorist” activities ranging from the mischievous (such as changing Sarah Palin’s email password) to the influential (their significant role in the Arab Spring), Anonymous oppose forms of censorship and support organisations such as WikiLeaks. So, not a bad legacy for a film in which Natalie Portman says “oh my god!” about five times. For all its faults, there are three crucial lessons to be learnt from V for Vendetta:
1. “People should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their people.”
2. Stop making Alan Moore’s work into films without his permission.
3. Never ever ever ever ever ever ever cast Natalie Portman. Ever.