If nothing else, the explosive “V for Vendetta” most definitely bears the stamp of the Wachowski siblings (of “Matrix” fame/notoriety and former gender sameness). The sociopolitical message of the film — while pertinent — is preachy and self-important, the love story is out of place and the suggested intermingling of reality with the supernatural is a bit bizarre. But the special effects, as expected, are brilliant, and “Vendetta” is energetic and entertaining enough to keep an audience rapt. And even if it does fail to inspire today’s politically lethargic youth to outrage and action, as it undoubtedly aspires to, the film’s political ambition is a refreshing change from an increasingly intellectually vapid Hollywood (“She’s the Man” and “The Shaggy Dog” are among this week’s top-grossing movies).
“Vendetta”, loosely based on a limited comic series penned circa 1980, is set, as most of the dystopian greats are, in a not-too-distant futurist London oppressed by a totalitarian regime. And while the film bears the most striking literary resemblance to “1984,” there are allusions to two other dystopian classics, “We” and “Brave New World,” which complete the triumvirate of political disillusionment.
But the totalitarian world envisioned by director James McTeigue (who assisted the Wachowskis on the “Matrix” trilogy) is not as convincing as Orwell’s. While the Brits have certainly found themselves in an artistically challenged, no-diversity, no-dissent environment, the populace remains openly critical of and unconvinced by their fascist leaders. Every time pseudo-evangelist Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam) ejaculates lies and propaganda on the television, he is met with widespread and emphatic cries of “Bollocks!”
In “Vendetta,” Big Brother takes the form of the dictatorial Chancellor Sutler — played, ironically, by the same John Hurt who embodied the troubled Winston in the screen adaptation of “1984.” Sutler parts his hair along the same lines as Hitler and strips his citizens of their civil liberties in the name of protecting them from a world torn by global warfare. The havoc was, of course, unleashed by a civil war-fraught America, referenced in passing on television.
Speaking of America, the Wachowskis obviously intended audience members to draw parallels between the totalitarian Britain of their creation and, arguably, the current curtailing of civil liberties undertaken by the Bush administration. References to current political trends abound: gay bashing, threats of the avian flu spreading west, anti-Islamic sentiments, subway bombings, money-corrupted pharmaceutical companies and homemade fertilizer bombs a la Timothy McVeigh. But Chancellor Sutler, as much as some would like to characterize him as a celluloid Dubya, is too articulate to be relatable to the current Commander-in-Chief.
Running parallel to the story of Sutler and his fascist cabal, “Vendetta” also follows Evey (Natalie Portman) and the development of her relationship with the mysterious Guy Fawkes mask-wearing hero-terrorist who goes by V (Hugo Weaving) and spouts words bearing its likeness (beware of the nauseating alliteration). Despite Portman’s accent, which goes in and out, her performance is nothing short of what we have come to expect from one of the most talented actresses of her generation. And Weaving (whose voice may be recognizable as Agent Smith of the “Matrix” franchise) spews potent, if sometimes vacuous, political ideologies remarkably well, considering that he is trapped behind a mask for the entire film.
Evey and V first meet when he saves her from being raped by a band of policemen while she wanders the streets after curfew. The knife-wielding, Zorro-esque V proceeds to top off his act of heroism by blowing up Old Bailey (an impressive first date, to be sure). Evey is hesitant at first, but before long finds herself falling in love with her masked comrade, and an unlikely pair of soul mates is born.
When her alliance with V lands her on the most wanted list, the Man in the Metal Mask offers Evey shelter in his underground lair — a bachelor’s pad complete with the Velvet Underground playing in the background and famous paintings rescued from the Chancellor’s stores of blacklisted artifacts adorning the walls. Before long the pair is curled up on V’s couch to watch the 1934 black-and-white “The Count of Monte Cristo” to pass the time. And, as the wealthy and avenging V’s revolutionary ambitions are the result of his being wrongly imprisoned and tortured, the allusion to Dumas is unmistakable.
As the days approach November 5, 2020 — when V has promised the British citizens he will succeed where Guy Fawkes failed, blowing up the Houses of Parliament — the masked man works relentlessly to politicize the terrified and complacent Evey, an effort mirrored in the growing political dissatisfaction of the broader British populace. And when November 5 finally approaches, the people of London do indeed storm Parliament bedecked in identical Fawkesian costumes, restoring our faith in the power of the people once more — or at least that’s what the Wachowskis intend.
“Vendetta” is neither as radical nor as subversive as it obviously aims to be. It is doubtful, indeed, that anything truly subversive would ever wend its way into blockbusterdom. As Foucault would remind us, the critique of power is no more than a reinforcement of the very powers it seeks to undermine. But it does slap the politically apathetic on the wrists, reminding Americans that if we continue to allow the erosion of our civil liberties, we too may find ourselves, with or without the aid of this obvious allegory, living under a Chancellor Sutler of our own.