V for Vendetta
2006Director: James McTeigue
Cast: Natalie Portman, Stephen Rea, Hugo Weaving
t comes as no surprise that V for Vendetta lurks in the realm of intangible ideas and symbols. Darkly prophesizing a totalitarian England of a not-too-distant future, the story involves a masked revolutionary seeking to cast off the yoke of his oppressive government. Naturally, this premise promises a good dose of political posturing. Happily, for those of us desiring something more than a pat condemnation of fascism, V for Vendetta constantly contradicts its own surface message. Whether intentionally or not, the movie manages to recreate the frenzy of the propaganda film: an arena where impassioned ideologies screech about the absolute evil of the opposing party while clinging, teary-eyed, to their own idealistic dogma.
I strongly suspect that any subtexts in V for Vendetta come from Alan Moore’s graphic novel, which, alas, I have not read. Considering the methodic moral complexity, the filmic storytelling is jarringly flimsy. Structured around conspiracy, double-crossings, alliances, and red herrings, the movie requires a viewer that will not concern herself with coherency. Barely bothering to fill in the spaces of what I imagine to be a very complex storyline, James McTeigue’s filmization jumps haphazardly from irrelevant character to improbable circumstance with cheerful abandon. The abrupt editing makes for a shoddy movie-going experience (the few action sequences are alarmingly anti-climactic), but I quickly abandoned plot mechanics for an engaging barrage of symbols. V for Vendetta is not a great movie, but its ambiguity warrants some interesting discussions.
Upon first glance, the story seems straightforward enough. The theocratic government medically experiments with its citizens, imposes the death penalty on owners of the Qur’an, and sends homosexuals to death camps. Near caricatures of hypocrisy, these holy bishops and chancellors engage in depraved sexual activity while periodically screaming “fuck!” The swashbuckler-terrorist V, on the other hand, elegantly quotes maxims of tolerance and social justice. Although the characters are easily divided into “good” and “bad” categories, the figureheads of each movement seem equally willing to toy with their followers. When a young girl is murdered while wearing a replica of V’s mask, the subsequent social unrest clearly benefits the political radical. For V, the end will always justify the means. No questions asked.
Merely replacing the simplistic morality of one political system for another, the people of England never honestly question their own circumstances. Finally realizing that something is wrong with their society, citizens leap at the vague beliefs of a man who gains their attention by hijacking national television for five minutes. When a mob wearing identical masks descends upon their oppressive government, the people prove to be naught but an easily malleable symbol. When the group drops their disguise and the camera briefly scans a sea of faces, characters martyred for V’s cause appear cheering among the crowd. These people are but symbols used to achieve a goal. Anonymous and singular, the mass is there to be manipulated.
The dynamic between concepts and personalities haunts the entirety of V for Vendetta. In the opening sequence, the infamous Guy Fawkes, whose likeness V assumes, exchanges loving glances with his secret lover. This moment emphasizes the humanity of a man who is remembered for the political concepts he embodies; the similarity to V’s romance with Evey, a brainwashed young woman, rings clear. The cruel irony: although Evey may gravely inform us that she will always remember the man, the world will recall only the idea. Judging by V’s casual disregard for virtually everything that Guy Fawkes actually stood for, even this idea can be easily manipulated into an emblem for the political cause of the hour. As for Evey, she can expect to be forgotten as quickly as Fawkes’s nameless lover.