Let’s start with the obvious, whether Alan Moore’s name is attached to this movie or not, V for Vendetta is about the most reverential adaptation of a book that any author could reasonably wish for. There are flaws, serious flaws in fact, which I’ll come to in a moment, but in terms of respect for the source material and a serious attempt to capture the atmosphere and scope of Moore’s original graphic novel, it is hard to imagine any other production doing so much to preserve the look and feel of another author’s work.
And on many levels, V for Vendetta is a triumph. Far less reliant on action than the connection with the Wachowskis (the Matrix movies) might have caused fans to fear, instead V for Vendetta is raised up and carried along by a number of excellent performances. Fry, Hurt, Pigott-Smith, Graves and Cusack all do remarkably good jobs in relatively small roles to provide a firm foundation for the wilder elements of the story. Rea, as the downtrodden but dogged Inspector Finch is magnificent, he’s rarely been better than he is here. In his steady manner and professional determination he’s manages to appear both formidable and vulnerable.
But the most extraordinary performance on screen is undoubtedly that of Weaving as V. Since he is always wearing an inflexible mask the performance is entirely is reliant only on his mellifluous voice and body language but nevertheless he manages to elicit both pity and sympathy. The weakest link is Portman’s Evey. Despite shaving her head and obviously doing all they can to make her look dowdy, Portman is just too much of a film star (and too beautiful) to be really convincing in the role.
Worse, her odd choice of English accent (proper and posh) is one of those moments scattered through the film that reveals it as the product of an American rather than British sensibility. Most British film-makers would, I think, have been far more aware of the relationship between class and language in Britain and might have had a better ear for how the British swear and how they laugh. So this is obviously an outsider’s view of Britain that imagines that the best that the British television industry could manage as satire against a totalitarian government is a cringingly awful sub-Benny Hill sketch. That the land of That Was The Week That Was, Yes, Minister, Brasseye and The Thick of It should be so maligned!
The more serious problems with V for Vendetta, however, stem from its political confusion. Moore’s novel was written in the darkest hours of the Thatcher decade. The country was convulsed by strikes, there were race riots on the streets of cities across the country, unemployment was the only thing reaching for the stars and the then government seemed determined to pick a fight with anyone (at home or abroad) who was not unswervingly “one of us”. The Cold War was at a peak with Russia rampaging through Afghanistan and the US bringing capitalism and democracy to Central America, whether they wanted it or not and a nuclear conflict seemed more than possible. In those stark circumstances, Moore’s contention that liberal states could not hold did not seem so remarkable and was widely shared across the political spectrum. It had, after all, only been a few years since British generals had been plotting, however ineptly, to replace the dangerously radical Harold Wilson with someone more amenable.
V for Vendetta offered a stark choice between freedom through violence and anarchy or oppression under totalitarianism. While I believe that this was a false choice, it is at least possible to make a case for the intellectual integrity of such an argument.
But, while the movie adaptation does a commendable job, in the current political climate, of asking where the line is drawn between legitimate struggle against an oppressive government and terrorism, it can’t bring itself to follow Moore’s argument to its logical conclusion.
The film version turns V’s struggle to destroy government into a fight for a better government – which is in no sense the same thing. The film has V concede that his violent ways excludes him from life in the new state and he presses Evey to deliver a renewed democracy. So, in the finale, massed ranks of people in V costumes walk through the lines of impotent soldiers to celebrate the (relatively) peaceful overthrow of the totalitarian state and begin the process of rebuilding. If the film-makers notice the weird irony of a fascist regime built on a desire to impose conformity being overthrown by a mass of people all wearing identical uniforms, they don’t let on.
I suppose they might argue that the fact that the crowd, at the last moment, take off their masks and reveal themselves to be “just like us” excuses or negates this dodgy image. But that, of course, misses the point. Every massed Ku Klux Klan rally ends in people removing their masks to reveal that underneath, they’re really just like us. The people who cheered at Nuremburg were “just like us” too. And so were those who marched in support of totalitarian regimes from South America to China, for Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, Mao, Hirohito, Mussolini and the rest. If twentieth century history proves anything it is that people “just like us” are capable of being complicit in quite horrendous crimes then proclaiming their absolute innocence and passing the blame on to their governments.
In Moore’s novel, V is an ambiguous figure – but the Hollywood version can’t resist making V a hero. But V cannot be a hero. He is not a role model. He is not even an anti-hero. V must be a desperate last throw of the dice against evil. He can’t survive into the new world because his violence and fury would corrupt it. Yet, in the movie, they film-makers clumsily remake every citizen into V. What sort of society would that be where every citizen resorted to violence and destruction to achieve their aims? How would the new world be better than the oppression that proceeded it?
V for Vendetta works on many levels – it is an entertaining film with excellent cast and an honest desire to raise important political questions. Unfortunately, so far as it possesses a political philosophy and attempts offers an answer to the very difficult questions it raises, V for Vendetta reveals itself to be profoundly juvenile in its understanding and unaware of (or unwilling to accept) the full implications of the issues at stake.