07 February 2017

Film review -- V for Vendetta (2005)

At an unspecified time in the future, Britain is under the rule of a fascist regime which had come to power two decades earlier by exploiting mass panic over a mysterious epidemic.  The regime has all the features one expects from its ilk, such as omnipresent surveillance, state control of the media, and ruthless suppression of dissent.  It is also explicitly Christian in character; its symbol is a modified cross, gays and Muslims have been "disappeared" from society, propaganda emphasizes the evil of "godlessness", and the official slogan is "Strength through unity, unity through faith" (in the graphic novel from which the film was adapted, it has "purity" in place of "unity").  The general public mood appears to be one of sullen but apathetic acceptance of the situation.

Opposing the regime is a lone revolutionary known only as V (Hugo Weaving), a man of almost superhuman intelligence, stamina, and fighting skill.  It's implied that he developed these abilities partly as a result of medical experiments performed on him at the "Lark Hill" concentration camp, making him a monster of the regime's own creation.  V's face is never seen; he always wears a distinctive mask modeled on the face of Guy Fawkes, an actual British revolutionary who attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605, and whom V has taken as his inspiration.  V's goal is to embolden the masses to rebel against the regime.  He is also tracking down and killing the individuals who brutalized him at the camp years before.  V is a man who can literally bring a knife to a gunfight and win.

Here, protagonist Evey (Natalie Portman) encounters some of the regime's plainclothes enforcers, known as "Fingermen" -- and then V shows up:

Observe the corruption which is in fact endemic under authoritarian regimes; the Fingermen apparently use their power to extort sex from women fairly routinely, without fear of punishment.  There is also a bishop who freely indulges his penchant for forced sex with young girls.

V subverts the state's own media to get his message out, even managing to widely distribute copies of his mask so that others can act anonymously while invoking his image.  Discontent spreads and dictator Adam Sutler (John Hurt) becomes increasingly unhinged as his regime starts to lose its grip:

As some of the visuals suggest, this film is explicitly a work of art and much of it cannot be taken as literal storytelling -- I found its imagery enthralling.  It does also take considerable risks with its story, though.  V is not so unambiguously heroic as these clips suggest.  He is ruthless and violent and willing to use almost any tactic to achieve goals he considers important.  In particular, in the middle of the film, he carries out an elaborate and bizarre act of "liberation" which is extremely disturbing.  Evey eventually comes to accept it; if I were in her position, I do not believe I could.  Each viewer must make his or her own judgment.

I should note that V for Vendetta is surprisingly gay-friendly for 2005.  Stephen Fry has a minor role as a gay man who escapes persecution (for a while) by remaining closeted, and an emotionally-wrenching sequence follows the story of an actress imprisoned for her lesbianism and ultimately killed.

V recognizes that the evil and violence of fascism make the use of even deadly violence against fascists themselves both legitimate and necessary.  Here, he has a final confrontation with Mr. Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith), the sadistic party leader, and a group of his thugs (V is wearing body armor):

I suspect V would not be among those who feel squeamish about punching Richard Spencer.

The film is not flawless.  Sutler's death seems perfunctory for such an important figure, and the circumstances are implausible.  We don't get much sense of what V is fighting for, aside from his desire for revenge against his former tormentors. While the final scene between V and Evey is emotionally powerful, the resonances of the following climactic ending are all wrong -- V achieves the aim of his predecessor and posthumously succeeds in blowing up the Houses of Parliament, the architectural icon of British democracy, an act which would surely horrify the crowds of citizens watching, not inspire them.  But these shortcomings do not detract from the unconventional brilliance of the rest of the work.

It's actually hard to imagine a fascist regime, especially a theocratic one, arising in Britain with its vigorous democracy and deeply-secular society.  But V for Vendetta has perhaps become more relevant to Americans, with our Republican party long dominated by fundamentalists and growing ever more authoritarian.

Thanks to artist Marc McKenzie for calling my attention to this movie.


Anonymous NickM said...

You're well on time with your reviews Infidel!

07 February, 2017 06:52  
Blogger Comrade Misfit said...

The real irony is that V for Vendetta is apparently a favorite film of conservatives.

07 February, 2017 06:54  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Nick: I've always just reviewed movies or books based on their being interesting to me and likely to be unfamiliar to some readers. I don't care whether they're recent or not, since the prevalence of DVDs lets people watch pretty much any movie whenever they want to.

Comrade: If so, those conservatives must be pretty oblivious to fail to notice all the pro-gay and pro-church-and-state-separation elements. Then again, Republicans often seem to like pop music while not realizing that it's a critique of something they favor. Maybe they really are that oblivious.

07 February, 2017 16:23  
Blogger Ahab said...

V's horrible treatment of Evey in the name of "liberation" ought to be a reminder to those opposing evil regimes. If one resorts to brutality against the innocent, as V did with Evey, one becomes as evil as the regime one fights.

While fighting monsters, we must not become monsters, or we've already lost.

07 February, 2017 17:35  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ahab: That's certainly true. How many rebellions against oppressive regimes ended up winning and then just establishing a new oppressive regime of their own?

09 February, 2017 03:53  
Anonymous Marc McKenzie said...

Great review, Infidel--and I'm glad to see that you liked the film!

One more tidbit--this was the last film that was shot by Adrian Biddle, who died shortly after production wrapped (the film is dedicated to him). Biddle was well-regarded as a DOP, and his first major film was Cameron's ALIENS in 1986.

@Ahab--Good point, sir. And it is a very valid one; all we have to do is look at the French revolution, the Russian revolution, and Mao's revolution in China to see that yes, those who fought the monsters eventually ended up being just as bad, if not worse.

09 February, 2017 13:10  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Marc: Glad to have it in my permanent collection. And I admire its sophistication in depicting V the way it did. he's a sympathetic figure (mostly) but definitely not always in the right or justified in what he does.

I have the graphic novel too, but haven't read it all yet. Maybe I'll give it its own review.

09 February, 2017 17:53  
Blogger Ahab said...

Infidel -- The graphic novel has a different, darker ending than the movie. I look forward to reading your opinion of it.

10 February, 2017 08:00  

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