Tick, tock, tick, tock... 4:58pm... 4:59pm... Home. De-brain. Soap opera. Colour-coded warnings. Citizens urged to ‘vigilance’. Suddenly, your superman swoops in, flicking a V-sign to it all; laying down sassy slogans like, “One man can’t change the world but an idea can.” A freedom fighter, bent on cutting the strings of the puppet society that keeps you cowed...
So far, so The Matrix. In adapting Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s 1988 graphic novel V For Vendetta, the Wachowski Brothers have revisited their breakout film in theme and tone. Yet strip away the mask and, while Neo’s world was too fantastical for day-to-day echoes, V’s is nauseatingly nearby. Adults jacked into computer pods being drip-fed a mollifying alternate reality? Almost. V wants to get real: to free real people leading real lives from cover-ups, spin and alarmist propaganda. In Vendetta, an American-led war has spread to British shores and when V declares, “There is something terribly wrong with this country,” the relevance is stinging.
But Munich this ain’t. While Spielberg’s thriller was designed with broadsheet chin-stroking in mind, Vendetta’s built-in notoriety is borne out of its London-based terrorism angle. Specifically, the bit where V packs a Tube carriage with bombs... Last summer’s atrocities lend the carnage an emotional heft that the film is too flimsy to back up with real substance.
Having substituted the graphic novel’s complexities for cartoonish, flag-waving blackshirts, the Wachowskis and director James McTeigue take care to complement V’s pseudo-babble with sensational “Down with the system, man!” posturing. Vendetta’s finest moments come from the Brothers’ flair for hardwired action: the opening casual brutality; bookended views of London burning; a claret-splattered, slo-mo ‘Knife-time’ sequence...
In turning V’s symbolic, obliterating revolution into something so gaudy and glorified, the unhinged expression of his wronged mind becomes a subversive wake-up call.
The ‘1812 Overture’ blares as flames leap and fireworks fizz, and, while not particularly subtle or clever, it is thrilling. As thousands of costumed V followers converge on Trafalgar Square, viewers will revel in the universal urge to kick out our keepers. Particularly in days when the keepers are tightening their grips.
But all revolutions need a captivating, charismatic figurehead, and our anti-hero isn’t instantly likeable. V’s introduction is hideously verbose and alliterative (“The vagaries and vicissitudes of the venomous...”), but the behind-the-mask monologuing and smarty-pants smirk disguises inner smarts. He ignores John Hurt’s Big Brother-style cipher and slaughters news anchor Prothero (Roger Allam) – the holder of real power in a gogglebox-glued nation. Yet, despite Weaving’s sly physicality – intrigued lean-forwards, sly nods, head-tilts – the subtlety of his words and ideas remain buried behind the mask’s immovable features.
Portman is equally smothered, with her slender acting chops unable to convey the complexity of Evey’s life-changing experience. And with Stephen Rea’s stern rozzer seemingly shipped in from an ITV cop show, much of the carefully presented exposition veers between clunky and corny. Characters begin scenes on the phone. “Really?” they say. “When did this happen?” Phone down. Another character asks what that was all about. “Well...” Cue the next bit of the story.
Fanboy grumps about the subtle Englishness being lost are justified. The Wachowskis have clearly followed the ‘Based In Blighty’ guide-book, with much tea-swigging and as many flustered splutters of “Good God!” and “Bollocks!” as possible.
Moore has insisted his name be scratched from the credits – which is a bit of a strop, because there’s plenty here that valiantly validates his vision of England gone rotten. But the emphasis on orgiastic fire and fury too often cheapens Vendetta, with the weightier issues buried too deep beneath the popcorn fluff.
Still, V’s stand-out buzz-phrase (“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people”) is a potent call to arms in our current climate of fear and loathing. Smuggling politics into blockbuster entertainment is no bad thing. Here’s hoping the kids who go expecting a Blighty-based Matrix walk away more aware and less afraid.
Flawed, for sure, but the best Moore adap so far. The Wachowskis again craft a sinister, spine-tingling and relevant vision of the future.