Released: 17 March 2006
Director: James McTeigue
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $50 to 54 million
Stars: Hugo Weaving, Natalie Portman, Stephen Rea, Tim Pigott-Smith, Roger Allam, Stephen Fry, and John Hurt
In a world where the United Kingdom is subject to a neo-fascist totalitarian regime headed by High Chancellor Adam Sutler (Hurt), the unassuming Evey Hammond (Portman) find sherself caught up in masked anarchist and freedom fighter V’s (Weaving) attempts to ignite a revolution through elaborate terrorist acts themed after the legendary Guy Fawkes.
V for Vendetta began life as a black-and-white serial written by the legendary Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd and published in the short-lived UK anthology Warrior between 1982 and 1985 before being picked up, colourised, and completed, by DC Comics in 1989. Influenced by a variety of literary works, V for Vendetta was a bleak, uncompromising tale of a morally ambiguous anarchist rallying against a totalitarian government and is generally regarded as one of the more subversive and influential comic books ever made. The production of a live-action adaptation can be traced back to 1988, when producer Joel Silver acquired the rights, but didn’t begin to gain traction until the late-nineties when Andy and Larry Wachowski (as they were known then) became involved in the production. Actor James Purefoy famously walked out of the title role after six weeks of filming and Moore, of course, hated the script and the idea of an adaptation, but V For Vendetta was a decent box office success with a gross of over $130 million. Critically, the film was also quite well received and became an influential cult hit.
V for Vendetta immediately begins by emphasising the overall thrust of V’s crusade: that, while a man might be forgotten, killed, or mere flesh and blood, an idea can live forever to inspire others into acting. It’s this belief that permeates throughout the film alongside the oppressive governmental regime that dominates this alternative version of the United Kingdom. When we are first introduced to V, it’s on the eve of the beginning of his masterplan for revolution; garbing himself in a black outfit, cape, and eerily emotionless Guy Fawkes mask, he stumbles upon Evey being assaulted by Fingermen, the secret police of this world, and immediately beats them into submission while spouting eloquent quotations. V’s mystery is immediately apparent not only because his entire face and figure is obscured but also through the verbosity of his vocabulary; approaching his crusade like a dramatic role, he exudes a theatrical flair and polite, curious personality that immediately captivates Evey’s attention despite her better nature.
V’s more melodramatic and articulate moments are offset by a disturbing unpredictability and ambiguity that makes him appear more than a little insane through his explosive methods, revolutionary opinions, and anti-authoritative stance. V destroys the Old Bailey using explosives, theatrical fireworks, and the sounds of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’. From there, V’s methods and agenda only escalate as he storms the office of the British Television Network (BTN) and forces them to broadcast a message of insurrection and revolution to take place in one year’s time, on the fifth of November, to take a stand against the oppressive government. V’s message affects the film’s characters in a variety of ways; Evey is awe-struck, families and viewers are puzzled and curious, and he is quickly branded a terrorist by the tyrannical government.
The Nordic supremacist and neo-fascist totalitarian regime that rules the UK, the Norsefire Party, spreads its God-fearing message primarily through the media in the form of Lewis Prothero (Allam); an extremely aggressive and spiteful individual, Prothero has an immense level of power and influence on the country as he spreads lies and messages of fear and hate to keep the populace under the rule of, and dependent upon, Chancellor Adam Sutler. Norsefire’s rise to power came after a series of orchestrated events that saw the country besieged by plague and death and, in their fear, they turned to Sutler and his promises of order, only to find that minorities, faiths, and sexualities were not only oppressed but cruelly ostracised, hunted, experimented upon, and killed by Sutler’s party.
Years later, the United Kingdom has become a bastion of law and order because of this fear; whereas former political powers like the United States are now little more than a “leper farm”, “England prevails” thanks to Sutler blacklisting music and arts, controlling the media, and having Creedy (Pigott-Smith) remove those who dare to oppose him. Creedy, a spiteful and cruel man, was the one who suggested Norsefire launch a viral attack on their own country to consolidate their power and takes his job very seriously; when insurgents rise up, he personally leads his men in breaking into their houses, beating them mercilessly, wrapping their heads in a black sack, and taking them away to be tortured and killed. His relationship with Sutler deteriorates over the course of the film when Sutler places the blame on V’s actions and elusiveness solely on Creedy’s inability to track him down and end him and V is able to manipulate Creedy’s aspirations to usurp Sutler’s position while still making him pay for his past crimes.
Equally perplexed by V’s crusade is Chief Inspector Finch (Rea), an Irish-born policeman who is horrified by V’s actions and broadcast but, in the course of trying to find him before Creedy can make him disappear, is horrified to uncover evidence that the Norsefire Party were responsible for a devastating plague and numerous deaths. His faith in the system already faltering at the beginning of the film, it is shaken to its core when he learns of V’s backstory and the horrifying experiments he and many others were subjected to, which turn him into something of a reluctant ally. V’s message strikes a chord with many others across the country, including Gordon Deitrich (Fry), a charismatic and entertaining talk show host who has been forced to live a lie his entire life since he is secretly gay and homosexuals are effectively outlawed. This leads to an amusing sequence in which he openly mocks Sutler on live television which, in turn, emphasises the tyrannical cruelty of the government when he is quickly bagged up and killed by Creedy. Other random members of the public are similarly inspired by V’s message and pay the price for it and, in turn, inspire others to take a more proactive stand against their oppressors.
V’s primary ally, however, is Evey; acting as the audience surrogate, we are introduced to V’s world (the “Shadow Gallery”) and learn about the specifics of his agenda through her; initially a timid and inconsequential character, she is captivated by V’s mystery, the strength of his conviction, and magnetic presence. Having suffered through many losses and tragedies, Evey is initially a product of the oppressive world in which she lives; she doesn’t like the rules, regulations, and actions of the government but feels powerless to do anything about it and prefers to stay out of politics. While she comes to bond with V even after his more questionable and violent actions, and feels an immense deal of pity and sympathy for him, she nonetheless attempts to escape and finds herself subjected to round the clock torture and isolation.
Conspiracy, revenge, and oppression are the name of the game in V for Vendetta; Norsefire went to extreme lengths to secure the vote and confidence of the public and covered everything up, from deleting military records and killing those who would expose or oppose them. The St. Mary’s virus devastated Ireland, and much of the UK, resulting in numerous deaths and was purposely released into the water supply by Norsefire to consolidate their power. Ever since, they’ve enforced strict curfews, rounded up homosexuals, people of colour, and all those with conflicting religious beliefs and lorded their superiority over those who were once their political betters. Hurt, who famously portrayed a contrary role in Nineteen Eighty-Four (Radford, 1984), demands nothing less than complete obedience, compliance, and results from his underlings; represented as a an aggressive, demanding voice shouting through a television screen for most of the film, his position and authority is never in question and he takes V’s actions and open defiance as a personal insult to him and everything he’s built.
Those within the Norsefire Party are deplorable and reprehensible individuals. Prothero was formally the commander of the detention camp that was responsible for producing the St. Mary’s virus and the suffering V and his fellow prisoners underwent; Bishop Lilliman (John Standing) is little more than a disgusting paedophile; and Creedy is a sadistic thug. The only real exceptions are Finch, who begrudgingly complies with the will of his superiors even before his faith is shaken, and Doctor Delia Surridge (Sinéad Cusack), the woman responsible for the experiments that led to the creation of V and the St. Mary’s virus and vaccine. Back during her time at the detention centre, she was a morally appalling woman who grew to hate the lethargic and miserable state of those she was experimenting on but, upon seeing her work go up in flames and coming eye-to-eye with a horrifically burned inmate, came to regret her actions. Changing her name and living in constant fear of reprisal, she accepts her fate at V’s hands willingly and is the only one of his tormentors to repent for her part in his suffering and to whom he shows a modicum of mercy.
V’s mission, for all his theatricality and grandstanding about brining down the government, boils down to simple revenge; referring to his actions as “justice”, he is driven by the desire to hunt down and punish those responsible for his suffering and the horrific scars he clear still carries from the fire. We never see V without his mask or without his face being obscured by shadow or some other disguise and his true identity is never fully revealed; clearly, he was some kind of genetic aberration to have been locked up and experimented on but there’s also more to him than simply being gay or a different creed or colour since he is able to endure unimaginable pain, exhibits near-superhuman levels of strength and durability, and is skilfully adapt with knives and in hand-to-hand combat.
The mystery of V’s true nature and origin is left intentionally vague, as it is in the comic book, in favour of the idea of V being more important than his physical form. In an effort to teach Evey the same lessons he learned, he subjects her to round the clock torture and forces her to live a very similar life of isolation and desperation as he was subjected to so that she can both better understand his motives, see the world for what it really is, and be freed of the fear and lethargy that has held her back her whole life. While Portman’s English accent is a bit dodgy at times, she more than makes up for it during this horrific sequence where she has her beautiful curly locks shaved, is hosed down and interrogated over and over again, and left in a cold, dank, desolate cell with only a rat and the writings of a fellow prisoner for comfort. Enraged at V’s treatment, she nevertheless discovers a strength and resolve she never knew existed and honours her promise to return to him for his revolution; however, while he pulls the lever that will usher in V’s new age, she doesn’t assume his identity like in the comic book but remains a changed and resolute character nevertheless.
V’s treatment of Evey adds to his questionable moral nature; he’s fully willing to maim and kill those who wronged him, or who get in his way, to say nothing of forcing Evey to endure constant torture and, yet, he is disgusted not just at his actions but at those who made him the man he is today. Having turned his back on his humanity and committed himself to a bulletproof idea, his conviction is strong enough to allow him to endure multiple gunshots and to give his life for his cause, knowing full well that he won’t live to see the dawn of his new age and grateful for the end of his suffering. Through Evey, though, he finds a kindred spirit and she even offers him something else to live for, something more akin to a normal life for the two of them, but he adamantly refuses, despite his love for her, since he is so dedicated to his crusade.
Arguably insane and blinded by his obsession, V’s message of revolution is the kick up the arse the British public need to shake them out of their apathy; this dystopian version of the UK is ruled by fear and hatred of other races, creeds, and sexualities even before the rise of Norsefire, who are little more than a Nazi regime. Until V came along, normal, everyday civilians merely went along with the ruling body, accepting it as the way things were and beaten down by submission and subjugation but, in the end, it is the normal, every British public who assume V’s guise and march through the streets of London, stand up to the government’s military might, and witness the dramatic destruction of the Houses of Parliament. In that moment, they all become V and witness the symbolic destruction of the ruling authority just as V’s actions remove the tyrants in power and give power, and truth, back to the people to do with as they wish. It’s a startlingly effective message to stand up to totalitarian rule, whether foreign or domestic, and the lengths to which governments will go to to control their people; in the end, it takes subversive, even terrorist acts to force people into action, though the film goes to great lengths to justify V’s actions and to only have those who are morally questionable label him as a terrorist.
When I first saw V for Vendetta, I hadn’t read the original comic book; based on how much I enjoyed the film, I was inspired to read the source material and, while there are a great deal of thematic and notable differences between the two, V for Vendetta is still a really solid adaptation and an effective film in its own right. Much of this is, largely, due to the incredible enigmatic performance of Hugo Weaving in the title role; despite his face being completely obscured by an unnerving visage, he exudes a multitude of emotions, from conviction to sympathy to self-righteous anger, and his eloquent delivery and dulcet tones bring as much characterisation as his dramatic body language and gestures. It’s a captivating performance, one sadly rarely replicated in comic book movies where actors constantly remove their masks, and is surpassed only by the political and emotional heart of the film. V for Vendetta’s world is one that seems to grow more and more relatable each day as cameras, surveillance, and control dominate our everyday lives more and more each day; governments become unreliable, their methods questionable, and the idea that apathy rules our society is powerfully relatable in an age were media controls us with carefully constructed messages and versions of the truth. The message is clear; V even says it himself in the film: “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people” and, while the comic’s more subtle and intricate means of depicting its messages are replaced by for more explicit Nazi iconography and action-packed moments, the film does a commendable job of bringing Moore’s work to life and it remains one of the more thought provoking comic book movies.
Are you a fan of V for Vendetta? How do you feel it compares to the source material? What did you think to Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman’s performances and the themes and message of the film? What do you think V’s true origins were? How comfortable are you with the power of the media and the increased surveillance we are met with these days? Which of Alan Moore’s works is your favourite? How are you celebrating Bonfire Night tonight? Whatever your thoughts on V for Vendetta, or the works of Alan Moore, go ahead and leave a comment down below.