If you were to pick any comic to adapt into a major Hollywood blockbuster, it probably wouldn't be V for Vendetta. Even if you didn't yet know that suicide bombers would soon make their first appearance on British soil, in a post-9/11 world it would be a brave person indeed who would film a mythologised bomber fighting to bring down a fascist UK government.
By any standards, then, V is prickly material. The reason that the comic—which began life as a black and white serial in a short-lived British anthology in 1982—has remained a seminal work is that while it is rooted in the politics of Britain in the 1980s it addresses timeless concerns about government oppression and personal freedoms. It seems relevant and even incendiary today.
Much has been made of comic author Alan Moore's disassociation of himself from the film, to the extent that the end credits state, "Based on the graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd." To describe the film's many differences from the source material would take an article in itself, but in essence the film takes the comic's most striking elements and reworks them into a cinematic structure. There are major changes throughout, not least in the conventionalised characters and the pat ending. Nonetheless, unlike From Hell (2001) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), which discarded all but the names of Moore's characters, this is a film that feels faithful to the source material. Although the adaptation strips away much, it still emerges as a thoughtful piece, especially if approached as idea-driven populist entertainment in the vein of Serenity. One feels that Moore has been burned once too often to give it its due. He said recently on BBC4's Culture Show: "If you are going to make them into films, please try to make them into better ones." V is a better film.
The initial omens, however, are not promising. In the opening scenes we're introduced to the eponymous character, a vigilante in a Guy Fawkes mask, but we have little sense of the world he inhabits. His entrance—saving a girl and delivering a flamboyant monologue—is pulp adventure that teeters on the ridiculous. This larger-than-life quality is inherent to V's character, and as the story develops will gradually feel more rooted in his origins, but in the early scenes it feels like a problem with the film itself. Matters are not helped by the depressingly familiar Hollywood version of England. A few concessions to modernity aside it seems anachronistic, tonally rooted in '50s greys and browns, full of alleyways and cockney thuggery. Far from inhabiting a near-future setting, the film could easily take place at any point in the last fifty years.
Things improve. Thanks to the efforts of a convincing English cast including Sinéad Cusack, Tim Pigott-Smith, and Stephen Fry, the dated aesthetic begins to feel timeless—and even something of a relief after countless overdesigned dystopias. Most importantly, we begin to get a sense of V as a character, and of the future history that led England to its present state. In his early scenes V's antics seem out of context—bizarre and unnecessary—but the more we see of the world which shaped him, the more we realise that he's not a simple caricature. Like the film itself, V is something of a contradiction: he's erudite and silly; uncompromising and sentimental; murderous and restrained. Hugo Weaving plays him exactly as written, and does an impressive job of emoting through the costume, although inevitably the mask distances us from the character in ways that don't apply in a comic.
Although we slowly come to a better understanding of V we never do see behind that mask, for good reason. We're told that he remembers nothing of his past; that he was in essence born anew from the flames of atrocity. In this sense he's more than a man: he's an idea; he's everyone and no-one. In a fine balancing act the film largely succeeds in making us understand V as an individual, while also distilling him to a symbol.
Sharing the limelight is Evey (Natalie Portman). Like Rose in the recent revival of Doctor Who she provides a way for the audience to access the eccentric title character, but unlike Rose she is also problematic. We learn almost nothing of her life before she meets V, and she's so thinly written that it's difficult to judge the profundity of her transformation. This is partly because she is as much a symbol as V, a proxy for the general public that must be shaken from its complacency. But as a consequence, her relationship with V is unequal and at times disturbing (reminiscent of Phantom of the Opera), and in helping him she suffers a great deal. In one deliberate but still troubling scene she flips from outrage to allegiance in a moment in which epiphany and brainwashing are virtually indistinguishable. None of the problems with the character are the fault of Natalie Portman, who gives a well-crafted performance which includes some difficult emotional notes.
The final protagonist is Finch (Stephen Rea), the detective who is trying to bring down V, and who increasingly finds himself in a spiral of doubt. He's little more than a cipher, but the framing of the middle section of the film as a conspiracy thriller works brilliantly, allowing the secret histories of both V and the government to be gradually uncovered. It’s a compelling narrative that adds numerous layers to the premise. As the investigation progresses the film really hits its stride, developing a momentum that carries all the way through to the finale.
The finale itself is on some levels ludicrous, operating primarily as theatre, not reality. We're not asked to ponder anything as mundane as the funding or coordination of V's plan. Instead there is blatant symbolism: the public rising as one, Guy Fawkes as everyman. It's no less powerful for all that, with an epic sweep only implied in the original comic.
What the film is trying to say is crystal clear on the large scale—it's a warning of the ease with which fascism rises to power, an indictment of the way governments exaggerate threats for political capital, and a call to a complacent public to look beyond spin and demand truth.
When it comes to terrorism the message is muddier. V is an enigma. Like all pulp vigilantes he's potentially open to ridicule, but unlike Batman he explicitly stands for something that is far from ridiculous: the terrorist. Is this a tale of a bomber waging bloody war, or a moral crusader? By draping the government in overtly Nazi and Orwellian iconography the film sidesteps any issue of whether V is right to pursue his course of action. This is a government reduced to broad-brush symbols, rotten from the top down. And yet V's goal is to incite the populace to rise through a decisive strike—a goal remarkably similar to Al Qaeda's, and in V's world wholly justified because the government is demonstrably evil. How comforting that could be to those who see terrorism as an ideological crusade.
Clearly the film is not trying to make this argument (though it cannot entirely escape it). Ultimately, as Stephen Fry's character makes plain in all manner of ways, the film is both tolerant and moral. Despite repeated references to V as a terrorist, it’s in his quest for personal vengeance that most of the blood is spilled. In contrast, his "terrorist" campaign is more performance art than atrocity: remarkably—even implausibly—bloodless. He neither kills indiscriminately nor sacrifices civilians, but instead seeks to spur them into action. In much of the film he is less a terrorist and more a catalyst; an infectious spirit of discontent.
Nevertheless, V’s methods cannot avoid criticism and his bloody personal vendetta is inextricably linked to his public one. When he attempts to justify his actions—"What was done to me was monstrous"—Evey replies: "Then they created a monster." We're not meant to blindly ignore his faults, nor condone his crimes. Instead we are asked to sympathise with his ideals. Fittingly, V relinquishes the final act of defiance to Evey, and to the public as a whole. In the end it's in the people and their ability to awaken that both the film and the character place their trust.
As a blockbuster, V for Vendetta is flawed in that it fails to provide the easy action demanded by the medium, and dares to drift into the symbolic rather than the literal. As a political statement, V is ultimately quite simplistic. It's easy to advocate rebellion against a one-dimensional regime, and any film that imagines a largely bloodless coup operates in the realm of wish fulfilment. Nonetheless, as that rarest of things, a fusion of mainstream storytelling with some measure of challenging ideas, the film is both unusual and successful. While audiences may shuffle nervously in their seats at V's antics early on, by the film's conclusion they've been carried on a satisfying and unexpectedly emotional journey, unlike any other film in recent memory.
Iain Clark has always written a great deal of nonsense, but increasingly feels the need to inflict it on other people. He lives in the North of England with his wife and two cats.