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V for Vendetta   C+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: James McTeigue
Writers: The Wachowski Brothers (based on the graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd and published by Vertigo/DC Comics)
Cast: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, Tim Pigott-Smith, Rupert Graves, Roger Allam.

Review by Rob Vaux

So many things need to go right to make a good movie, and yet only a few things need to go wrong to ruin it. V for Vendetta gets a number of things right -- beautifully, gloriously right -- but they're not enough to overcome the serious missteps that outnumber, outflank, and eventually subsume them. Director James McTeigue finds moments of pure brilliance amid a story that stumbles from one questionable choice to another -- hampered, in the eyes of some, by the absence of its original creator. Graphic novelist Alan Moore, who first envisioned the tale as a vicious condemnation of Thatcherite Britain, demanded that his name be removed from the film; only artist David Lloyd is featured in the credits. While Moore may have overstated his case a bit (he gave his tacit blessing to the vastly inferior League of Extraordinary Gentleman after all), his antics adroitly shine a light on V for Vendetta's fatal flaw: too many changes to the source material, none of them for the better.

Indeed, the best parts of the film are those that stray the least from the original text. When McTeigue commits to the anger and the passion of the graphic novel, the results are quite extraordinary. Foremost among them is "V" himself -- a terrorist/revolutionary, played by the great Hugo Weaving, who escapes from the concentration camps of a fascist future Britain. Experiments performed upon him while in custody have granted him amazing strength, stamina, and intelligence, but left his face hideously scarred and his mind possibly unhinged. Wielding a brace of Ginsu knives and hiding his features behind a grinning Guy Fawkes mask, he is at once terrifying, humorous, and utterly irresistible. Weaving's honeyed voice casts a hypnotic spell, quoting Shakespeare and Marlowe as V carves a bloody path through the oppressive forces holding England in their grip. The film never shortchanges his complexities or the sometimes-awful things he does in the name of his cause, creating an antihero as compelling as he is unique.

The movie also does right by his partner in crime, though more fitfully and with much less elegance. Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a frightened young woman taken under V's wing, begins the film as a hopeless muddle of plot contrivances and simplistic motivation. The lost, lonely little girl of Moore's text is gone, replaced by screenwriting expediency and whatever steely dignity the actress can bring to the role (which, admittedly, is quite a bit). As such, her character arc -- perhaps the most important part of the story -- is hamstrung from the beginning, and must often take a back seat to silly and unnecessary details. And yet McTeigue eventually finds the right tone for her, evinced by a beautifully shot epiphany in the rain and preceded by 20 breathtaking minutes that bring tears to the eye. It's the only piece remaining of her character's soul... but it's the piece that matters most and its presence here is an unquestioned high point (I was tempted to recommend the film on its merits alone).

Similar treasures are sprinkled throughout V for Vendetta: evocative flashbacks, sharp speeches, and a simplistic yet thoughtful political agenda that allows screenwriters Andy and Larry Wachowski to shake off the turgidity of the final Matrix installment. V's government opponents are properly understated: pale, weedy Englishmen who express their evil with the chilling banality of mailroom clerks. There's a nice bit involving a well-intentioned doctor (Sinéad Cusack) who wakes up one morning and realizes she's become Josef Mengele. The periodic action scenes are properly engaging, and a remarkable montage involving escalading violence and a row of dominoes grabs the audience by the throat three-quarters of the way through (a tip of the hat to editor Martin Walsh for some yeoman work). These elements all have unquestioned power, and had V for Vendetta strung together a few more of them, it might have emerged triumphant.

But for every spot-on moment, there are two more that produce nothing but bafflement, head-scratching, and incredulous snorts. The need to streamline the plot creates a series of dubious cul-de-sacs -- where fierce storytelling gives way to lazy shorthand -- and McTeigue simply lacks the experience to find his way out. Motivation often suffers: scenes come together without a proper setup, and the need for grand, powerful symbolism often translates into stupid or ill-conceived notions on-screen. Perhaps most importantly, V for Vendetta never establishes the right atmosphere for its oppressive world. The proper Orwellian images are here, but they never come to life. We never feel the eyes boring into our skull, or sense the fear that men could kick down our door and drag us away at any time. The filmmakers just aren't angry enough; they lack the seething, primal rage that ran through the novel like a cresting river. Stephen Fry occupies a particularly unfortunate subplot, in which his character's ridiculous naïveté sabotages any sense of a plausible police state. It's intended to emphasize V's growing influence on the populace (and perhaps to make the film resonate for contemporary times), but the effect is so jaw-droppingly preposterous that one wonders how the film can ever recover.

In the end, it can't. Despite some noble elements and scenes that make one gasp in amazement, V for Vendetta falls apart too often to build up any permanent goodwill. That it diverges so sharply from Moore's text wouldn't matter if the changes were well thought-out, or contributed in some way to a better final product. But they don't: they simply buy a straighter path at the expense of a worthwhile destination. V for Vendetta may stand on its own as a film, but only just, and only because of the support it receives from its source material. As incredible as parts of it are, the sum total is still just a shadow of the true V -- a V as close as your local bookstore and yet finally beyond this well-meaning movie's reach.

Review published 03.16.2006.

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