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Saturday, March 18, 2006

V for Vendetta

I was thrilled to be back with my second family at the Essex Cinemas after two weeks away visiting my most cherished friend in the world, Melanie Smart. Melanie lives in England, and even though we rarely get to see one another face-to-face we "chat" via IM on-line several times a week, usually analyzing the latest Hollywood releases and dissecting the lives of celebrities in general. How I wish I'd had the chance to bring Melanie home from Europe so that she could revel in V for Vendetta with me, as she has shared stories of her annual celebrations of Guy Fawkes Day with her children for years. Guy Fawkes Day? Perhaps in the US Fawkes may be only a vaguely familar sounding character, but, no, he was not the lead singer of the Sex Pistols, and he isn't that cute new guy behind the counter at the Essex Cinemas either (for the record, that's Jason). Guy Fawkes, as viewers of V for Vendetta will quickly learn is the original terrorist of our modern age, even though it has been 400 years since his explosive plan to overthrow the British government fizzled. Still, you have to admire someone who can still be remembered and celebrated even in failure after so much time, and it does give Ben Affleck hope whenever he thinks of his career chances in the years to come (but, alas, I digress). So it is with Guy Fawkes that the story of V for Vendetta begins.

V for Vendetta is a vibrant vision of politics gone horribly wrong. Taking place in a vague time not far into the future, England has now become a veritable fourth Reich under the rule of High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) who rules as an Oz-like talking head seen on television screens across the country. He is a viper who has played the Americans fall from grace after the Iraqi war like a vintage violin. His ability to seize power and turn Great Britain into a gigantic village of voiceless idiots is dramatic and, unsurprisingly, involves a series of shameful secrets that Sutler has successfully manipulated the media into covering up to his personal advantage. Gone are political dissidents, homosexuals, and Muslims. To disagree with the extremely right-wing politics of the High Chancellor is guaranteed to find you locked away in a prison vault with no hope of ever seeing the light of day again.

Then comes V, played both sympathetically and frighteningly behind a ceramic Guy Fawkes mask by Hugo Weaving (
Lord of the Rings; The Matrix; The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). V is a valiant if violent terrorist who makes a vigorous first showing in his plan to bring down this vicious dictatorship by blowing up a famous landmark and hijacking the British Television Network to broadcast his plans for the nation to hear. In one year, on November 5th, he shall blow up Parliament as a sign of rebellion against the vile Totalitarian regime of Sutler and his cronies.

Needless to say the vultures in power are vexed by V’s appearance and it falls to Detective Finch (Steven Rea,
Breakfast on Pluto; The Crying Game) to track down this fear monger immediately. What Sutler didn’t realize is that V’s venture into terrorism is as much personal as altruistic. Soon Finch is in a veritable morgue full of victims, all slain by V and left to die with a symbolic rose in their hand. Bit by bit the story of V’s veiled past is revealed and Finch comes to see that the madman behind the mask is also a victim of this venerable institution Finch had always trusted.

Complicating things is the appearance of Evey, played by
Star Wars’ Natalie Portman, proving once and for all that she can actually act. As Evey, Portman is a voluptuous vixen whose vacuous life suddenly and jarringly collides with V’s. From their first meeting, it becomes a dance of varied emotions as Evey finds herself rescued from Sutler’s “Fingermen”, the not-so-secret police, to her own victimization as a hostage of V’s and eventually as his protector and love interest. Evey is valiant as she struggles to find the veracity in what V tells her about his motives yet, like him, she shares the painful background of having had her parents “invalidated” by the regime in power and she is sympathetic to his values.

V for Vendetta is a remarkable film, whose voyage from graphic novel to film has taken sixteen years. The Watchowski Brothers, in their first post-Matrix work, do an excellent job evoking a future that could easily be speeding toward us with a velocity we can not actually imagine. The politics of V’s world are nary a heartbeat away from many in this country today, and the “vast right wing conspiracy” Hilary Clinton was laughed at for calling out six or seven years ago is now proud to turn up the volume with their speeches that vilify those they despise. In just this type of environment, it becomes a challenge to separate the “good” guys versus the “bad” ones. When does nationalism become vainglorious? When do actions as violent as V’s become terrorism? And is he a “terrorist” because he ventures to derail the presiding norm of a society or is he a hero for trying to liberate the masses held captive by a government that has eviscerated their individual freedoms? These are questions that V for Vendetta does not easily answer but poses through its evocative portrait of a place safe enough for Americans to examine from a distance but close enough to our own version of reality to see ourselves as if in the reflection of a funhouse mirror.

It is a shame that
V for Vendetta has been released in that “vanilla” season of (usually) bland and vapid films that follow the Christmas holidays and precede the summer blockbusters. V is definitely a thrill ride in addition to being a thought-provoking visit to the vices and vulgarities that drive politics at its worst. Don’t let the man in the mask fool you. This is not a typical vein-slashing Friday the 13th movie. V for Vendetta is a vastly different movie and definitely one of the most unusual offerings on the cinematic vista in a long time.

As I left the theater at the
Essex Cinemas I was pleased to hear many patrons comment on V for Vendetta in the most positive of terms. Apparently my fears that the allusions to Guy Fawkes would be lost on most Americans, especially the young, were unfounded. It gives one hope to know that whether fifteen or fifty the viewers who are giving V for Vendetta a chance are getting the message of this multi-layered experiment in excitement. It’s definitely worth a visit to the Essex Cinemas to check this one out.

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