Directed by James McTeigue. 2005.

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V for Vendetta is a Hollywood action film with a difference – it is a film of ideas that has something intelligent to say about contemporary society. Directed by James McTeigue, assistant director of The Matrix trilogy and written by the Wachowski Brothers, the film is based on a graphic novel from the 1980s by Alan Moore (who did not want his name in the credits) directed against then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Though it has its roots in a comic strip, it asks a serious question – whether political action must be accomplished by peaceful means through established political channels or whether civil disobedience (aka terrorism) is justified when everything else has failed.

The film is set in the year 2020. The United States has ostensibly sunk into chaos caused by a civil war and the UK is run by a right-wing Christian-oriented, totalitarian elite that has stifled dissent and robbed the population of their democratic rights. Political opponents have been imprisoned or executed, police rule the streets after dark, and Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) is a pervasive presence on the government-controlled television screens. Beneath their protective façade, the government plants stories in the media and lies to the people about disasters which they themselves fostered to further limit political liberty and solidify control. What they do not count on, however, is a masked vigilante with a personal axe to grind.

Known only as V (Hugo Weaving), this mysterious renegade seeks revenge for his disfigurement that resulted from a fire during medical experiments when he was held in a detention center. The film allows us to see quite clearly that revolutionaries do not come from thin air but are created when their human dignity is violated. Performed with flair and poetry by Hugo Weaving, V’s goal is not only to get back at those involved in the experiments but, with the help of an aroused populace, to bring down the entire government.

V is a superhero who fights for right and justice, yet, unlike superheroes of the past who had their enemies arrested, he is a killer without moral compunction. It is easy to judge his behavior, yet faced with the circumstances of fascist oppression, we do not know how we would react. We hear his disembodied voice but never see his face, only the mask he wears, with its smirking grin forever painted on his face. It is the mask of Guy Fawkes, a Catholic zealot who was arrested and hanged for his part in a plot to blow up the parliament buildings on November 5, 1605. V seeks to fulfill Fawkes’ goal four hundred years later.

V is a loner but recruits support in the person of Evey Hammond, an orphan who comes to believe in his cause after he rescues her from an assault by roaming police squads. After V saves her life, he transports her to a rooftop to witness the destruction of Old Bailey, London's central criminal court building, in an audacious scene complete with fireworks display and Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." Natalie Portman turns in a powerful performance as Evey who does not become fully committed until she is forced to undergo a physical and emotional ordeal where her values are fully tested. Also strong is Stephen Rea as Finch, a Police Inspector who begins to question where his government is taking him.

V for Vendetta brings up reminders of Abu Ghraib with its hooded prisoners and of Nazi concentration camps and Guantanamo with torture scenes and persecution of gays but it is not mired in relentless despair. The relationship between Evey and V becomes an unconventional romance and V’s swashbuckling swordplay mimicking the film, The Count of Monte Cristo, lightens the mood considerably. V for Vendetta is not high art nor is its political message always coherent, but it is a stylish thriller that is emotionally riveting whether or not you support its basic ideas. It is also a work of conviction that succeeds in challenging our minds and, in its stirring conclusion, reinvigorating our hope for humanity. 


Howard Schumann
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