I’m sure there will be a lot of talk on this site and across the web as Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta is brought to the big screen. But, I thought I’d give my perspective as a Londoner who lived through the political climate that led to the writing of the utterly fantastic series; I personally think it’s Moore’s best work, even better than The Watchmen.
I’ve never been a huge Matrix fan, so the Wachowski brothers involvement never particularly thrilled me. Even the first Matrix I found pretty unimpressive, it spent far too long explaining what I thought was a pretty simple concept; perhaps they thought the popcorn munching masses needed it spelled out to the last detail. The action was spectacular, but I found it had too many pretensions (don’t get me wrong I love action movies, but this thought it was something higher), and the sequels just drifted into incoherent techno-babble, punctuated with astounding action.
Though, they had obviously found the source material for V, loved it and made it into a screenplay, handing it to their first unit director from the Matrix trilogy, James McTeigue, for his directorial debut. However, Hugo Weaving was the best part of the trilogy, so that was a plus, but his late addition to the cast, replacing British actor James Purefoy, didn’t bode so well. And, I think Natalie Portman, given the right material, can be a fairly respectable actress (think Closer and not the steaming pile of excrement that was the last three Star Wars movies).
I won’t go on to review the comic as I’m sure most of you have read it. If not, go and buy it NOW; it truly is a phenomenal and powerful piece of writing. But I do think it’s important to understand some of the basics of the political era in Britain it was written as a direct response to. Margaret Thatcher was our first and, so far, only female Prime Minister. She was head of our country from 1979-1990, though it wasn’t until 1997 that the Conservative Party eventually lost power, 18 long years under the same government. She was perhaps our most inextricably popular yet hated PM. Her rampant love of the concept of the free market and privatisation of public utilities led to large scale unemployment, the miners strike, cuts in health and education budgets, an anti-European stance and the widely despised Poll Tax (a fixed tax per individual irrespective of earnings). There was an incredibly large ground swelling of public opinion against her, but she was voted in again and again (there are no set number of terms in the UK, you can go on as long as you are voted in).
This is the climate that V was written during. There seemed to be a large scale oppression of the poor and a government that was veering further and further to the right. The way the Conservative Party were using the media was also disturbing at the time, twisting them to their point of view and using them as a weapon to influence the minds of the populace as the whole. So it wasn’t a huge leap to the government and London depicted in Alan Moore’s piece. It was a response and commentary on the times, just amplifying what was already going on. A call to arms, a cry that we must do something radical before it’s all too late. This is our possible future, do anything and everything you can to stop it.
Of course the other huge reference point is Guy Fawkes and the Gun Powder Plot, one of the most famous events in British history (and something Moore assumes readers are already aware of in the comic). It is briefly covered in the film but here’s the abridged version: In 1605 Guy Fawkes along with his Roman Catholic conspiritors attempted to assasinate the the current king James I. But, it went far beyond this and involved blowing up the House of Lords killing all members of the British Parliament in one fell swoop. Whatever his actions, and you can never condone murder, this was a time of religious intolerance and opression. Of course Fawkes’s plan was scuppered and he was caught before the explosion, but it’s incredibly interesting to think that the entire course of British history could have been changed on that night. He was tortured and executed of treason and attempted murder in 1606, and his capture is still celebrated in Britain on Guy Fawkes night every 5 November (the original release date for the film) with fireworks and bonfires burning an effigy of Fawkes himself. This event is deeply ingrained into the British mindset and V himself models himself and takes inspiration from Fawkes as an extreme catalyst for social change.
Another brief aside of course is Alan Moore’s own involvement, or more accurately lack of involvement. This has been well documented but basically boils down to he had absolutely nothing to do with this movie in any shape or form, and from recent interviews he’s pretty unhappy it’s been made at all. Though artist David Lloyd seems pretty happy with it, and seems to be cropping up on the promotional circuit with plenty of complimentary things to say about his involvement.
The release was delayed for obvious reasons (it was originally slated to come out just a few weeks after the London bombings, though producer Joel Silver insists it was delayed due to ‘technical difficulties’). Now it’s finally arrived at the local multiplex, so what is it actually like? Does it do the comic justice?
The answer is yes and no.
Lets start with the positives. Hugo Weaving is brilliantly cast. OK, maybe he’s a bit too theatrical with his over use of his hands, but for someone who has to act with his voice alone (we never see his face) he does an extraordinary job. His rich mellifluous tones lend a depth to the role that many other actors couldn’t attain. In fact, overall, the acting is of a pretty high standard with a selection of quality Brits taking all the supporting roles. John Hurt, in particular, brings real menace and energy to his role. And the Britain presented looks great, however the snap shots of UK life go straight for the stereotype (the bar and family homes feel particularly forced to the point of condescending, and, while we’re on the subject, Portman’s accent is crap).
Of course there are changes to the story to keep up the pace, but I always feel it’s nit picking to dwell on these too long unless they make dramatic changes to the tone of the piece. I think films like X-Men and Batman Begins proved you can make changes to events but still capture the essence of the characters. And yes there are changes and indiscretions here and there. But, when they go for it, some of the panels from the comic really are brought to life (Evey’s capture, torture and release are realised almost panel by panel). And simple things like the design of the mask are just perfect.
However the main problem is that at times it becomes confused by its own story. The gloss that has been applied to make this story marketable has lost much of the original’s subtlety and coherence. Its obvious parallels to the current political climate where in both the US and UK new anti-terror laws are being brought in are striking, but it is when they try to crowbar the Koran into the story it just feels laboured and unnecessary (we already understand the allegory, please don’t treat us like idiots). When you compare it to the original work it pales in comparison, looking empty, simplistic and soulless. Evey’s release in the comic sent my mind reeling, however on screen it just felt like another event that was never truly explained, or the motivations seem weak at best. There are a few dull sections and even the action sequences can be near indecipherable. The final confrontation with Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith) is particularly unsatisfactory and messy. This onscreen version feels far more derivative, the similarities with 1984, Phantom of the Opera, The Scarlet Pimpernel and even action fodder like Equilibrium and, of course, the Matrix are exemplified. V’s conversion of the Great British public seems far too easy and as a film it seems to think it’s far more subversive than it really is, and in this light some of the obvious product placement feels particularly out of place.
It’s a very interesting time in cinema, with open questioning of the ruling government moving into the mainstream in films such as Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck. That now an action film is also tackling the same subjects just shows there is a cultural shift in the air. The film almost works, it lacks a great deal of the subtlety and power of the comic but in general not it’s bad. Certainly not the car crash I’m sure many of us were expecting.