Review by Nicole Pedersen
Just like most other inhabitants of the free world, I am a big fan of the first Matrix film. In fact, I was inclined to believe that the Wachowski brothers were near to genius until they caved in and delivered their two regrettable sequels a few years back. Since that time I have tried my best to convince myself of two things that the Matrix “trilogy” never existed and that one day the brothers would come back and make everything right again. My act of willful self-deception became a lot easier last March when the Wachowski produced V for Vendetta hit theatres. This movie was actually good! OK, maybe not Matrix good, but certainly better than that Matrix Revolutions crap. It seemed the mysterious brothers had redeemed themselves at last. But now that V has made it to DVD in three simultaneous releases, I have had to rethink my position a bit. Yes, I still believe V for Vendetta to be worthwhile, but I no longer see it as a Wachowski film, and therefore all comparisons to the Matrix are odious.
It was unrealistic to believe that Warner Brothers would fail to hype V for Vendetta as the follow-up to their obscenely profitable Matrix franchise. Therefore its theatrical release was promoted as “by the creators of the Matrix” before all else. This approach shortchanged V in more ways than one. First, it set unrealistic expectations for cinematic innovation in the mind of most ticket holders and two, it led us to believe that this was a film both conceived and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski. In fact, V for Vendetta is based on the (don’t call it a comic) graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd while directing duty is handled by Matrix AD James McTeigue. It would be like M. Night Shyamalan producing a film based on Sandman and promoting it as “from the mind behind the Sixth Sense” (and at this point in his career, doesn’t M. just wish?)
V for Vendetta paints a picture of a not-so-far-off future world. It takes place in an England where outside wars and deadly diseases have left the population demoralized enough to submit to a ruthless totalitarian regime bent on subverting every freedom imaginable. The leaders of the “Norsefire” party are in league with big business, they control the mass media and they covertly spy on their citizens. It is a vision that is certainly over the top, but taking into account current events in the United States, is neither wholly foreign nor entirely unimaginable.
Keeping her head below the radar is Evey (Natalie Portman), the orphaned daughter of political activists killed by England’s new dictator, Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt). Unlike her folks, Evey is socially complacent until she is saved from being raped by two government goons on the eve of what used to be Guy Fawkes Day (the Fifth of November, for those that don’t remember). Her champion is a mysterious man who definitely hasn’t forgotten the significance of the date. In fact the man known only as “V” is disguised behind a Guy Fawkes mask and reveals to Evey his plans to wake the populace to the injustices they have been silently tolerant of. V (Hugo “Agent Smith” Weaving) wants to complete Fawkes’ gunpowder plot by blowing up Parliament House in exactly one year’s time, and he wants all of England to join with him.
As Evey gets slowly sucked into V’s world and unwillingly into his plans, she will eventually emerge as the film’s true freedom fighter. V is more of a terrorist than a superhero, after all, despite some pretty fancy fighting during the finale and a unique medical anomaly that makes him seem invincible. We learn that much of his humanity was lost during a harsh imprisonment with a Norsefire version of Dr. Mengele, but even this fails to cast him in an entirely sympathetic light. We cheer when he seeks bloody revenge on the architects of his mutilation, but gape in disbelief when he puts Evey through like torture in order to “free her from her fear.” As an object lesson, Evey’s torment plays as overkill, but it does give her the faith in herself necessary to become independent, of both V and the ghosts of her past. This particular plot device is pretty abhorrent, but the success of V is that you find yourself going along with it anyway.
Evey’s character arc also affords Portman the opportunity to deliver some of her most effective acting since her debut in the Professional. Her British accent may be a bit off, but who can deny the cinematic power of a bald woman’s redemption? Hugo Weaving’s V, despite never revealing his face, is an always engaging and interesting revolutionary. Though his verbose verbiage may be a bit vexing to some, I found myself rewinding the film several times so as to catch all of his historical and alliterative allusions. Other characters played by the Stephens Rea and Fry are as believable as those existing in the heightened reality of the comic-based film world can be, with a notably memorable performance by Natalie Wightman as Valerie, the martyred lesbian.
V for Vendetta, since its release, has been used as propaganda for many opposing groups. The Christian right sees it as starkly anti-family while the Libertarian Party uses it as a rallying cry against big government. Critics, for the most part, have stooped to remind us of its Orwellian plot and of it’s origins during the Thatcher era in England. But remembering to put aside all comparisons, let’s just recognize V for what it is: a smart and timely piece of sociopolitical commentary, a good popcorn movie and probably the best adaptation of Alan Moore’s work to date.
Despite clocking an estimated 130 million world gross prior to the DVD, V for Vendetta was not the box office giant Warners had dreamt of. I believe, though, that appreciation for this film will only grow over time. Especially through the DVD, V will continue to be cited by those who believe it is echoing their own personal beliefs. What will ultimately turn this into a cult classic is that the message behind V is anything you want it to be.
Video / Audio / Extras
Leave it to the notoriously reticent Wachowski brothers to gift us with a version of V for Vendetta that is sans audio commentary. Both the wide and full screen single disk editions feature a “making of” doc featuring the graphic novel’s co-creator David Lloyd and the always imbecilic producer Joel Silver (Yes that was him claiming the release of V would coincide with the 100th anniversary of Guy Fawkes Day). If you get the 2 disk special edition there are some added featurettes and an easter egg revealing Portman’s SNL performance from earlier this year. Chain store exclusives from Best Buy and Target also include either a tiny Guy Fawkes mask or an abridged 64 page reprint from the graphic novel.
Adapting comics is always a tricky proposition as evidenced by the sub-par versions of Constantine and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that helped ensure that Alan Moore would never again lend his name to any film based on his work. I, however, am going on record that I believe V the film to be better than the original comic. With their condensed screenplay, the Wachowski brothers have tightened up Moore’s sometimes rambling narrative and excised much of what was silly or unworkable in the original text. Purists may miss the anarchic bent and scratch their heads at the reworked Evey character, but by updating V for Vendetta to a post-9/11 world championed, ultimately, by a young woman, the brothers W have given us a film that plays less as the warning finger of doom and more as a dark and engrossing fairy tale.