Set some decades in the future, V For Vendetta is really a product of the past. Not just because it grew out of comic writer Alan Moore's resentment of Maggie Thatcher and everything that she came to represent at the time the original story was conceived, but because it draws so heavily on a fantasy of what the future might look like from a radicalized perspective that emerged from the post-'60s/punk era. In fact, had the picture been made twenty or thirty years ago, we might be recalling it as having been a bit prescient about how a campaign of fear might engender a totalitarian regime, the same way that 1984, a story that can certainly claim parentage to this picture, looked to the invasive eye of a malevolent authority.
As our movie opens, America is in the midst of a civil war and Britain is ruled by a blathering dictator, The Chancellor (John Hurt), who evidently feels the need to bark endlessly in full screen IMAX closeup to his cowering minions. Hurt's dental work and scrappy goatee have never before been so lovingly rendered. It's an education. So while the film is set in the dreary future, it also draws on the kind of familiar bygone Gothic tropes of The Phantom Of The Opera as well as the more recent Batman Begins, all stories in which a deeply damaged and disguised figure, in this case the elusive V, who likewise operates out of some curious subterranean lair, forms a bond with a woman possessed of varying degrees of spunk.
Natalie Portman, who plays Evey in this picture, and who seems to be making a career of playing precocious foils to dented adults in films such as The Professional, Beautiful Girls, and Closer, manages to mix a bit of early '80s punk into her spunk when she gets her head shaved, making her look like she's geared up to audition for the Slits or X-Ray Spex. All Evey really needs are a pair of Doc Martens to complete the picture, but we must assume that they too have been outlawed by the new regime. (And in a better fictional universe, V would be playing Crass tunes over his loudspeakers in the midst of his mayhem, not the "1812 Overture".)
Portman carries the picture actually, since she's working opposite a guy in a Guy Fawkes mask (Hugo Weaving), who gets to spout out a wealth of silly aphoristic nonsense, but whose face is never seen. In this case the character of V (an inverted anarchist A drawn in a circle -- get it?) is the survivor of a government-sanctioned experiment who possesses some heightened abilities. The superhero business is thankfully not much explored here, but in the brief, all-too few action sequences, he does kick some serious butt, and he's very handy with knives.
The only other recognizably human figures in the picture are Stephan Rae as a kind of hand-dog copper on the trail of V, and Stephen Fry as a closeted gay television celebrity who looks after Evey when she manages to escape V's lair, mainly, it seems, so she can avoid having to watch The Count Of Monte Cristo for the umpteenth time or listen his endless pompous prattle. In any case, V's agenda is to finish what Guy Fawkes failed to do in 1605 by blowing up Parliament, for the spectacle as much as anything, but also as a symbol of a new, liberated Britain. To that end he has sent apparently everybody in London a Guy Fawkes get-up so they can leave their pubs and comfy couches to march forward to reclaim their country in complete anonymity.
It's a weird message, me boyos, but not so far removed from that similarly mangled quasi-mystic/philosophical epic Matrix trilogy, also brought to us by the Brothers Wachowski, which started out looking like it might be the next step in cinematic cyberpunk Gnosticism and instead turned into a dreadful, bloated, verbose mash with admittedly brilliant production values and a few great action sequences. Should the Wachowskis make an effort to construct a truly fantastic comic book thriller, perhaps like Moore's Miracleman series -- which the latter part of the final Matrix movie resembled -- I'd be first in line to see it. But they'd be wise to abandon the preachy claptrap and cut to the chase, where their talent really lies, because as a polemic, a romance, or a cautionary tale of runamuck governments and the consequences of their brutal agendas, V For Vendetta fails miserably. - Henry Cabot Beck
Mr. Beck straddles the coasts, contributing features on movies, music, books, comics and other cultural objects to the New York Daily News and many other publications.