25 March 2006

current cinema: V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta
this review also appears in The Wissahickon

starring: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, and John Hurt
written by: Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski, based on characters created by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
directed by: James McTeigue
R, 132 min, 2006, USA

Opening with a plea to "Remember, remember, the 5th of November[1]" and, for the uninformed, a short history lesson, V for Vendetta is a stylistic endorsement of the communist methods of revolution that in the hands of more capable filmmakers could have been a profound film. But, under the helm of the creative team behind The Matrix Trilogy, it is merely an entertaining diversion.

Cut to November 5th, 2020, and the former United States is in civil war, Britain appears to be under some sort of quarantine, and an ethnic cleansing mentality has taken over the British government. Undesirables (such as dissidents and homosexuals) have been removed from society, succumbing to late-night raids by men carrying black hoods. But from this culture of fear arises a masked phoenix known simply as V. He rescues Evey (Natalie Portman) from the clutches of Britain's finest, makes his Zorro-esque mark on a poster, spouts off a stream of self-indulgent alliteration, and proceeds to blow up the Old Bailey building[2] with the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Minus the speech, it's a pretty cool way to introduce a character.

V's mission, as explained in a speech via an emergency broadcasting system, is to wake a sleeping populace with the promise of a revolution, conjuring the spirit of the late Guy Fawkes, the man who attempted to blow up Parliament during a joint session[3]. In one year's time, V promises Britain the grandest Bonfire Night since the first, asking only that his fellow citizens join in his revolution. Naturally, those in charge don't take too kindly to the threat, charging Chief Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) with the task of ensuring Parliament's safety and V's capture. And with that, the game is on.

The man behind the mask is none other than Hugo Weaving, no stranger to the Wachowski Brothers after playing the evil Agent Smith in all three of the Matrix movies. The film's grand irony (or at very least easiest joke) is that Weaving manages to convey more emotion, even while wearing the mask, than Keanu Reeves ever did in The Matrix. His performance is one of the film's high points. Natalie Portman is excellent is stretches, and is to be commended for having her head shaved, but she seems unsure of her accent and has trouble maintaining it for the film's duration. The script wishes us to believe that Evey, who for a time is held against her will, develops an affection for V, sort of a beauty and the beast romance, but neither the actors or the film invest any real energy in developing it, so it falls flat. It just happens, and we are asked to accept it as plausible.

It's a symptom of the film's larger problem. What director James McTeigue lacks is a fundamental understanding of how to build a story's quieter moments. He's quite good, for the most part, at large sequences full of bombast and pyrotechnics, but he never lays the proper groundwork, so when the explosion is over, all that's left is meaningless rubble. To fill those gaps, he employs a litany of cliché's, from Stephen Rea's tired cop to the vigilante getting his revenge to the constant shots of V emerging from a fiery furnace like a mixture of Keyser Soze and a superhero. For example, there's a scene late in the film when Evey walks out into the rain and raises her arms, mimicking the pose V took when coming out of the fire. This, of course, is meant to symbolize that Evey and V are now of a like mind (or thereabouts). It's an obvious technique that's been around for as long as film has existed. McTeigue has been showing us this clip of V's emergence at various points along the way, but he shows it to us again, in a match cut, as if to remind us of the symbolism. Then he does it again, for the one audience member who might not have picked up on it. And somewhere in there is a point of view shot of the rain that's as inexplicable a shot as you're likely to see. For the life of me I can't figure out if it's worse that McTeigue felt the need to pound the symbolism into our heads, or that the shot of Evey references an earlier shot that's largely lifted from a superior film and was, even then, a cliche. Either way, it's not a good sequence.

Of course, you could make the argument that he's just working from the script by the Wachowski Brothers, which specializes in beating symbolism into your head until you've no choice but to recognize it. The British government leaders, led by Adam Sutler (John Hurt), are as thinly-veiled a depiction of the Bush Administration as you'll ever see. Essentially taking Bush tactics and phrasing extrapolated into an Orwellian tyranny, the screenplay vilifies them in a way most obvious, and for an added touch, combines them with commonly recognized Nazi propaganda so that even the most ardent Republican might have trouble justifying Bush's Presidency. It accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 (2004) feel subtle. Even so, it fails to understand V's methodology, confusing Marxist revolutionary dogma with the ideal that an individual can enact change, given the proper amount of determination and firepower. The premise contains a great deal of potential, but is squandered at every turn.

V for Vendetta is a film built largely on cliché's and heavy-handed allusions to previous works. However, as the Wachowski Brothers and other cinematic imitators have shown in the past, if you use enough of them, either a couple will slip through and feel original or the sum total will pass as stylistic. But in the end, it all feels like the stories by writers who haven't yet found their voice, so they mimic what they've read last. A lucky few find success with this method, but the vast majority must mature and evolve until they find their own voice. Sure, V for Vendetta is an entertaining way to spend two hours, but it's also a seriously flawed movie made by people unsure of their message and unable to trust their audience to find it without a detailed road map. There's a hint of the blind leading the blind and the sinking sensation that this ship, while a lot of fun, won't hold water for long.

[1] An astute reader will remember that on the 5th of November Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize (1930), the first Monopoly game was sold (1935), we first learned of a genetic study showing that Thomas Jefferson impregnated one of his slaves (1998), and, interestingly enough, The Matrix Revolutions (2003) was released in theatres worldwide.

[2] The Old Bailey Building is a criminal court that deals primarily with Britain's major criminal cases. Hence, it is a symbolic target for V and not to be confused with the Bailey Building & Loan as depicted in It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

[3] Known as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. It is said that Fawkes was "the only man to ever enter Parliament with honest intentions."


mattreed said...

'Move over, move over, the 24th of October'

I don't think that the film is 'a stylistic endorsement of the communist methods of revolution.' There is not even the slightest hint that V harbored any sort of communist ideology. It is certainly an endorsement off anarchism and terrorist methods. One might think communism because of two assumptions: 1/ the opposite of fascism is communism, and 2/ revolutions are communistic. Neither of these assumptions, of course, are true. (In fact, it is a tenant of Marxist philosophy that no such terrorist methods would be needed, as communist revolution is a historical necessity. There is a silly assumption that the USSR fell disproves communism. Actually, the rise of the USSR disproved communism 70 year before. Lenin was shocked that Western Europe never collapsed and further that Russian peasants and workers alike revolted against his policies, though his gov't came into power through trickery and late night couping. The union leaders who asked that those in power actually work in factories were gotten rid of. When the Lenin's party got less than a quarter of election votes, democracy was done away with). So, the movie does not confuse communist ideals with individualistic methods, simply because the movie doesn't claim any communist ideals (the filmmakers don't seem to harbor any, judging from the Matrix films). The movie is anti-fascist, anti-Bush, and pro-a-number-of-scattered-things. It should be judged on these, such as they are.

By the way, I think that a lot of the cliche stuff comes from it being based off of a graphic novel.

johanna said...

i never knew much about Marxism outside of the thesis, antithesis, synthesis understanding of it.

i've read him a few times and still have yet to make heads or tales of the fellow.

however, i'm pretty sure you meant "tenet"...though, if you know of a place where one might go to be a tenant of Marxist philosophy, then perhaps age-old questions can be answered more directly. questions like, "are these shoes Marxist?" and, if so, "when I take them off, am I being a fascist in some tangential, non-antonymical way?" and so on...