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2.5 out of 4 stars


V for Vendetta

Directed by James McTeigue

Written by Andy and Larry Wachowski

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Starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, John Hurt

Classification: 14A


Oh, V for Vendetta is just the start. There's V for violence, of course, 'cause lots of landmarks get blown up real good. There's V for voluminous too, 'cause this flick does go on. And for verbose, 'cause it sure likes to talk. And V for vicar, 'cause the talk has a way of turning rather preachy. Yes, dare I say verily, there is in these frames a veritable planet of V-ness.

Just don't expect any V for verisimilitude, although that's seldom the case in any comic-book-turned-movie, a genre not known for its subtle reality but occasionally applauded for its sheer fun. So clap a little, for the bit of fun to be had here. It can be traced to David Lloyd's graphic novel which, written during the neo-conservative regime of the Thatcher years, imagined a not-so-distant future with England fallen into a dystopian state under totalitarian rule. Go figure.

Enter the Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry, who, having finished their travels through the looking glass of The Matrix trilogy, apparently had enough time on their hands to set about converting Lloyd's book into a screenplay. Which they've done, with a few amendments. We're still in the future, but the brothers have updated the references in an effort to show how the sins of Thatcherdom have extended their stain right into the Tony Blair era. That noble work done, all that remained was to hand over the director's reins to their erstwhile assistant -- one James McTeigue.

He opens on a view of London gone grey under the fog of conformity. The dictatorship is headed by the malevolent Chancellor Sutler, a despot content to confine his public appearances to a giant screen -- think Big Brother bred from Adolf and played by John Hurt with a goatee ugly enough to qualify as evil incarnate. In what seems like British gloating, or maybe just wishful thinking, a bout of exposition (more about that later) informs us that the once-powerful U.S.A. has succumbed to "Godlessness" (as if), leaving its unhappy denizens torn by civil war and plagued by "Avian flu." No such worries here. The English citizenry had the good sense to vote the Chancellor to power. Given the historical mistakes of "Iraq" and "the coalition of the willing" (bring on those topical asides), the Brits elected to sacrifice the velvet glove of freedom for the iron fist of security.

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That fist, protruding from the long arm of the state police, is where matters begin. A pair of brutal cops are threatening an innocent woman, the cue for our anti-hero to race to the rescue. That would be V (Hugo Weaving). In look, he favours a long-haired wig fronted by perfect bangs, accessorized with a Guy Fawkes mask frozen into a perpetual half-smile, the better to hide his severely burned face and to declare his anarchical talents with gunpowder. Lots of gunpowder planted under government buildings. He warms up with the Old Bailey courthouse, which falls down kaboom to a Tchaikovsky tune. Expect more of the same at climax time.

The gal saved by V is EV, who spells her name Evey and works on TV, the nasty state-controlled kind. But her heart isn't in it, since she too is a budding young rebel. We know that from the montage that fills in her unfortunate past. V's fiery history, complete with the literal flames that defiled his body and forged his vengeful spirit, gets the same montage treatment. Yep, sometimes the exposition comes in the form of flashbacks. Other times (remember the U.S.A), it's just spoken out loud and upfront. Either way, the stuff tends to stick out like dried raisins in the white bread of the plot -- organic it ain't.

On a happier note, EV is portrayed by Natalie Portman, sporting for the occasion auburn locks and an English accent, both suspiciously artificial in origin. As devotees of the entertainment press will doubtless know by now, a narrative twist in her character's fate demands that Ms. Portman actually submit to a pair of barber's shears. Natalie, I'm willing to confirm, does get all her hair shaved off. Her accent stays on, more or less, and the combination leaves her somewhere in the mid-Atlantic looking like a close cousin of Sinead O'Connor.

As for poor Weaving, getting permanently stuck behind a porcelain mask does put a crimp in your acting style and a premium on your vocal chords. He settles for the low register of the highly articulate, frequently quoting the Bard while showing off his V for vocabulary, with predictable emphasis on such polysyllabic entries as vicissitude, vivisection and veracity.

Okay, but where's the promised modicum of fun, you might be asking? Well, it lies (shallowly, I admit) in the comic-book inflation of the whole business. This is a dystopian movie that can't for a second be taken seriously and doesn't seem to mind -- in fact, it seems eager for the audience to adopt its own frozen smile of demi-amusement. So we chortle at the hot-air aphorisms that should come with balloon captions ("Artists use lies to tell the truth; politicians tell lies to obscure the truth"). And we chuckle at the timely allusions appliquéd for headline relevance ("I wonder how unfamiliar words like 'collateral' and 'rendition' became so frightening"). Here, even the earnestness sounds amiable, and the evil wipes clean with a damp tissue --it's a cautionary tale-lite.

Consequently, when V invites us into his (inevitably) subterranean lair, and reveals the great books and the fine paintings and all the other truthful art he's filched from the censorious "Ministry of Objectionable Materials," the scene plays against its own message, but with such inadvertence it's almost endearing. I mean, a picture like Vendetta has nothing to fear from the thought police -- that would require thoughts. This is just darkness played bright, a disposable object but hardly objectionable.

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