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Archive for Friday, March 17, 2006

V for Vendetta’ is S for Subversive

March 17, 2006

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"Ideas do not bleed. They do not feel pain," Natalie Portman's character explains in the opening narration.

But do ideas get dizzy?

There are so many disparate ideas competing for screen time in "V for Vendetta" that it's a wonder the film doesn't come apart at its narrative seams.

Imagine George Orwell's "1984" if its central character had been a costumed crime fighter a la Batman. The result is part socio-political think piece, part action blockbuster. Half anti-government call to arms, half unquenched love story.

Add a pinch of British history lesson. Throw in a dash of Shakespearean inner turmoil.

Pay homage to "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Count of Monte Cristo."

"V for Vendetta" is the latest Hollywood interpretation of author Alan Moore - a man whose IQ always seems about 50 points higher than whichever filmmaker is trying to adapt his graphic novels. Moore's relationship with the motion picture industry has sired one passable effort ("From Hell") and one turkey ("The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen").

His latest endeavor is the closest of the movies to hint at the history-steeped genius of his work. Yet it's still too much of a jumble to be deemed a success. (One can only hope Moore's upcoming "Watchmen" fares better.)

Movie
V for Vendetta ** 1/2

Imagine George Orwell's "1984" if its central character was a costumed crime fighter. In this subversive effort based on Alan Moore's graphic novel, a woman (Natalie Portman) becomes the unlikely ally of a masked freedom fighter. Part socio-political think piece and part action blockbuster, the former works better than the latter.

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"V for Vendetta" is set in a not-so-distant future in which the threat of global terrorism has turned Britain into a totalitarian police state. Portman stars as Evey, a TV production assistant assaulted after curfew by government goons who is rescued by a verbose anarchist called V (Hugo Weaving).

Evey: "Are you like a crazy person?"

V: "I'm sure they'll say I am."

Disguised in a Guy Fawkes mask with a permanently frozen smile, clad in black swashbuckling garb and wielding knives with the dexterity of a Wu Shu master, V is bent on dethroning the government's key players. These include the Bush-esque chancellor Sutler (John Hurt), the Rumsfeldian head of the secret police Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith) and the Limbaugh/O'Reilly-ish "voice of England" Prothero (Roger Allam).

Eventually, Evey becomes an unlikely accomplice of the vigilante/terrorist. But at what cost?

To backtrack a bit, Fawkes was a Catholic dissident who in 1605 was caught beneath Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder in a failed attempt to blow up King James I. His name lingers on in annual "celebrations" throughout England and in a memorably creepy nursery rhyme ("Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot. I see no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.")

Writer Moore certainly hasn't forgotten. He structures the entire story around the allegory of Fawkes' insurgent coup. With screenplay help from the Wachowski brothers (creators of the "Matrix" trilogy) and their protege director, James McTeigue, Moore's latest is often interesting though not always very compelling.

Hugo Weaveing as V and Natalie Portman as Evey in Warner Bros. Pictures and Virtual Studios action thriller V for Vendetta, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Hugo Weaveing as V and Natalie Portman as Evey in Warner Bros. Pictures and Virtual Studios action thriller V for Vendetta, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

The relationship between the principals feels disconnected and never quite achieves the beauty-and-the-beast resonance it deserves. (To be fair, Portman and Weaving are always separated by his mask.) In fact, the most powerful emotional moments don't even involve the leads, but come via a subplot flashback involving a lesbian's anti-authoritarian stance.

More potent is the movie's political commentary. The filmmakers certainly can't be accused of hiding behind metaphors. They spell out very clearly that it is anti-Muslim hysteria that opens the door for this Big Brother regime. The Christian right - buoyed by its pro-England jingoism and anti-gay rhetoric - assumes command and gradually smothers the country with its ideology.

It's easily the most subversive mainstream picture to be released by a major studio in years. (From Warner Bros., no less!)

Ultimately, "V for Vendetta" is a confounding exercise that has no trouble getting people to think, but it's far less successful at getting them to feel.

- Entertainment editor Jon Niccum can be reached at 832-7178.

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