More noise than signal

V for Vendetta

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

My brain has always incorrectly filed this 2005 outing as a Wachowski joint, but although they did adapt legendarily curmudgeonly comic book author Alan Moore’s story, it’s James McTeigue in the director’s chair. Looking back, the general quality of McTeigue’s post-this outings raised alarm bells, but my memory of what happened 15 days ago is pretty shaky, let alone 15 years ago. Just how does it hold up?

The film, over the course of a year, recounts the campaign of anarchist and Guy Fawkes mask enthusiast V, played by Hugo Weaving, against the fascist Norsefire government of Britain in the futuristic hellscape of 2032 – a time and general state of affairs we are now more than half way towards. He starts by blowing up the Old Bailey, and broadcasting a message to Britain to join him in destroying the Houses of Parliament next year.

Caught up in this madness is Natalie Portman’s Evey Hammond, a mild mannered employee of the state broadcaster that V saves from the secret police’s attempted rape, in case you were in any doubt as to the nastiness of the state apparatus, who then finds herself on the run after being viewed as an accessory to V’s crimes. After a period of hiding out with a lovely, forcibly closeted on pain of death TV host, Stephen Fry’s Gordon Deitrich, she’s again taken by V after Gordon’s ill-advised piss take of John Hurt’s High Chancellor Adam Sutler, and his extensive security apparatus’ inability to catch V leads to him being carted away.

So here we are, an hour in, and I was starting to wonder why I vaguely remember having issues with this film. After all, the central storyline is fine, the performances are on point from a cast I mostly like, the character backstory is intriguing and tied into the equally intriguing worldbuilding through Stephen Rea’s character’s investigations, ultimately uncovering the even nastier secrets behind the rise of the Norsefire party. It’s stylishly shot and the action is also competently handled, as perhaps you’d expect from someone working with the Wachowskis for so long.

And then you get to the reminder that sometimes 80’s comics were a little bit too grimdark for their own good, as our, admittedly obviously insane, but nonetheless so far ultimately morally righteous hero tortures the other over weeks, or months, for the flimsiest of reasons, and seemingly mainly to avoid writing in a conversation as an exposition dump. And is quickly forgiven this by Evie as we plough into the end of things.

So, yes, I now remember my problem with this film. It is stupid.

If I’m making an effort to understand this, I suppose it could be argued that, in true action film style, V’s already killed a whole bunch of people, and so perhaps we shouldn’t be expecting much moral guidance from him. Even so, there’s a pretty basic distinction between killing enemies and torturing allies that’s difficult to get over, and Evie’s acceptance of this is baffling.

Is it enough to spoil the rest of the film, which I’m by and large on board with? Mmmmaybe? It’s certainly enough to reduce this to an at best guarded recommendation, and not to think of it again for a further 15 years. Ultimately, its main cultural legacy seems to be the popularisation of Guy Fawkes masks amongst antifascists, and, well, perhaps that point of trivia is all that it ultimately deserves to be remembered for.