In a future totalitarian Britain, a deadly knife-throwing masked avenger takes on the regime that brutally disfigured him... with Natalie Portman caught in the middle. So, we’ve got one part Nineteen Eighty-Four, one part The Phantom Of The Opera, and one part Zorro.
More interestingly, what we’ve got here is a post-9/11 film in which the hero is a terrorist. Now that takes balls.
Superficially, the totalitarian British state depicted in the film mimics the Nazi regime in obvious ways. Too obvious, in fact — so obvious that it constitutes a red herring... because beneath that resemblance of style, there’s a resemblance in substance that’s all too disturbingly topical today, in that it shows a government based entirely on using the whipped-up fear of terrorism to consolidate its own power.
The terrorist hero, whose only name is “V”, models himself on Guy Fawkes, and wears a stylized Guy Fawkes mask to cover his ruined face. He schedules his major actions, such as the blowing up of buildings, for the fifth of November, the date now known in England as Bonfire Night, when it is traditional to shoot off fireworks, burn effigies called Guys, and sometimes to wear Guy Fawkes masks.
The real life Guy Fawkes was a conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Fawkes attempted to blow up Parliament by stacking tons of gunpowder in the building’s basement, intending to kill King James I and most of his government. He was caught on the night of November fifth, and named his co-conspirators under torture. His group are sometimes referred to as terrorists, but in fact they were revolutionaries; they aimed to overthrow the government in one blow, and install a Catholic one in its place. V, likewise, is a revolutionary. But his methods are less direct: instead of using bombs to try to assassinate those in power, he treats the blowing up of well-known buildings almost as an end in itself, using destruction in a way that’s largely just symbolic. They seem to have tried to find some kind of balance between heroism, terrorism, and Guy Fawkes tribute, and the compromise has ended up producing a revolutionary act that seems rather pointlessly empty.
Not that V doesn’t also accomplish some more substantive revolutionary work, thanks to his near-superheroic abilities — abilities whose origin is never explained, only hinted at. He assassinates a number of members of the regime, and hijacks a TV transmitter to get his message to the public. Unfortunately — and this is where the thematic complexity of the story takes hold — his program of political assasination is inextricably entangled with personal vengeance. The targets at the top of his list are always those who were personally involved with his own case.
V: “What they did to me was monstrous.”
Evey: “And they created a monster.”
Much of the story is told from the point of view of Evey, an ordinary young citizen who lives in fear of the government. Her path crosses V’s when he rescues her from thugs. And Natalie Portman’s performance is the key one in the film, not Hugo Weaving’s as V — and fortunately, Portman is truly excellent in the role. Unintentionally, she becomes a fugitive, and ends up in V’s underground lair. Her character is a much bigger part of the story in the film than in the source graphic novel (which is by Alan Moore, who incidentally has ridiculed the film and kept his name out of the credits.) She is the only one who gets to know him, but the gap between them remains unbridgeable.
Two thirds of the way through, I was thinking things like “This is easily the best work ever to come from the Wachowski brothers.” It’s serious, it’s complex, it’s mature, it’s thoughtful, it’s daring — it’s even, as far as possible given the setting, notably realistic in tone compared to many other comic book films, or other Wachowski efforts. But then they threw in a plot twist so unbelievable and inexcusable that my respect for the film suffered a major hit. And it’s so outrageous in part because up to this time, as those who are familiar with the source graphic novel have pointed out, the film makes V too sympathetic, too purely a good guy, too close to a traditional romantic hero. My secondhand impression is that in the comic he was more a bringer of chaos than a one-man revolutionary movement. If they’d given us a clearer view of his monstrous side, this twist might have halfway worked.
A while after that, they did the final action scene, in which V, armed with his trademark knives, takes on a group of gunmen... and it’s presented in such a stylized, visually overcooked way that the effect is just to bring to the foreground everything that’s phony and to destroy everything viscerally real about it. My reaction was, hey, we know the thrown knives are CGI, but you don’t have to totally rub our faces in their unreality.
So this film is very noteworthy, yet has some frustrating flaws. Rather like certain other films with the Wachowski name on them.