V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta opens with a recap of the capture and execution of Guy Fawkes, the man who, on November 5th, 1605, attempted to blow up England’s Houses of Parliament with barrels of gunpowder. It’s not surprising that a film based on a British graphic novel would refer to England’s most famous failed terrorist. What is both surprising and intriguing is that Fawkes is portrayed in that brief sequence as a fallen hero. It’s a moment of subversion that is unfortunately not repeated anywhere else in the film.

Originally a graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, V for Vendetta describes a future in which nuclear war has made much of Europe uninhabitable and plunged England first into chaos and then fascism. The title character is V, a Batman-like superhero out to overthrow the existing order. His costume and mask are the cloak and the grinning caricature of Guy Fawkes that have been standardized by several centuries of the English burning an effigy of Fawkes stuffed with combustibles every November 5th.

Alan Moore insisted on his name being excluded from the movie’s credits, a gesture that seems to have more to do with a longstanding feud with Hollywood and DC Comics than with the movie itself. That said, the film, while better than other adaptations of Moore’s work, like From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, is likely to disappoint audiences whether they have read the original or not.

The time constraints of a feature film have eliminated many of the subplots of the original story, a change that’s inevitable but still robs it of much of its moral complexity. There has also been some updating of the plot (The original story was supposed to take place in the "future" of 1997.) It’s no longer just a nuclear war, but a war and a biological terrorist attack that have led to the rise of a repressive society in which nonwhites, gays, and leftists have vanished into prison camps and possession of the Koran is a capital offense. V is more human and less ambiguous in this film, more the standard superhero than the often cold-blooded anarchist in the graphic novel, while the villains, who were frequently quite human in Moore’s version, are reduced to caricature. John Hurt, in particular, is given little to do as fascist leader Adam Sutler but rant and display his long yellow teeth in tight close-ups.

Hugo Weaving plays V, Natalie Portman is his young protege, Evey, and Stephen Rea is Finch, the dogged and decent cop out to capture V. Stephen Fry is both likeable and vulnerable as a well-known television personality who befriends Evey. There are some very good moments, as when V blows up the Old Bailey to the strains of the 1812 overture, and a sequence which shows the populace slowly and menacingly rousing itself from the fear of its government. But midway through the movie, the story falls apart. Important plot points are treated in a rushed, perfunctory manner and what could have been a fascinating parable about tyranny, terrorism, and the sheer charisma of violence becomes just another series of bloody fight scenes. There is a stirring final shot that had some members of a screening audience in San Francisco cheering, but the film is just not as provocative or as powerful as it could have been.

Perhaps someday someone will make Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta into a miniseries, a form that would have room for a faithful adaptation with all the dark ambiguity of the original. Until then, this version, flawed but with a few compelling and worthwhile moments, will have to do.

Pamela Troy