Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Anger And Revolution Without The Passion For It: V For Vendetta

The Good: Excellent dialogue, The human moments
The Bad: Violence without passion, Much of the acting, Aspects of over-the-top
The Basics: Failing in the realm of grandiose battles, V For Vendetta is philosophically sound and connects on an emotive, personal level, but is otherwise just long.

I went to see V For Vendetta blind. Not literally blind, but without having seen previews, not reading reviews, not knowing anything but the title, the actors and the tagline. I had anticipated - based on what little I knew of the movie - enjoying the political message of the film. I didn't. In fact, what had an effect on me was the personal elements. But, I get ahead of myself.

V For Vendetta begins as the story of Evey, a young woman sometime after 2015 who is out after the curfew in London. When the Fingermen, common citizens who act as a police force, stop her and begin to assault her, she is rescued by a masked man. The masked man introduces himself as V and speaks articulately and in poems and at great speed and Evey hesitantly accompanies him to a rooftop to witness a concert. The concert consists of music blaring over London's propaganda soundspeakers and crescendos into an explosion of a significant landmark building.

Later, V takes over the propaganda ministry and plays an appeal to the British people wherein he urges them to stand up and take back the government and their lives and a year from that day - November 5 - stand outside Parliament which he will blow up. In his escape, he rescues Evey and is reluctantly forced to keep her detained for the year in his Shadow Gallery, a collection of artifacts that the government has believed destroyed. Evey escapes and is captured by the government until she loses everything and becomes free herself.

The best moments of V For Vendetta are the personal ones and the nice thing about the movie is it never cheapens the resolve or conflict within the characters. So, the most obvious aspect of the movie - what is under V's mask - remains a mystery. But it's the peripherals that make the most moving moments of the movie. Deitrich, a celebrity on the British network who Evey knows, tells a heartwrenching story. Dr. Surridge, one who personally hurt V in the past, delivers the most beautiful and poignant line of the movie in a quiet point. She simply asks V (NOT a direct quote, sorry!), "Is it ever too late to say sorry?" It is such a perfect moment.

What Surridge's exit from the movie does it propel the plot along and from her demise to the end of the film, much is spent filling in the blanks that plague the viewer from the first half of the movie. We see a Totalitarian Britain, but we don't know how it became that way, save V's accusations that the populace has become complacent. So, the latter half illustrates how V himself was integral to the establishment of the State and the resolution of V's anger.

Much of the exposition is a function of an investigation by Finch, a tired-looking detective who is investigating V's first bombing. Finch is the human element that the movie turns on. Many might argue that V For Vendetta is V's story or Evey's, but it's not. V's story is what Finch uncovers, but because much of it is a cobbled together backstory, it is hard to find empathy for V. V becomes a tool for Finch's understanding.

Similarly, Evey is a tool of V. She is an obvious successor to V, but hardly a common citizen. Her backstory reveals a history of persecution and moments that predispose her toward V's philosophies. Far more compelling than watching someone who has known the government is wrong actually moved to action is watching someone who is a cog in that government learning the government is the problem and the power of that revelation leading to immediate action. That is Finch's story and that is what makes the movie watchable and enjoyable in the parts that it actually is enjoyable.

The problem is, those moments are not the bulk of V For Vendetta. Instead, they are the exception to the rule. The pacing of V For Vendetta is very off. Long passages of the movie are ponderous and drawn out. Refreshingly, V provides some of the longest monologues I have seen and heard in recent movies. This strikes me as real and it's nice to see in a movie. Unfortunately, when the action picks up and the conversations stop, the battles move at such speed that what is actually happening is almost impossible to visually decipher. The exception is the climactic battle, which is slowed for dramatic effect and is nice in that it is easy to see what is happening and make the whole thing make sense.

But the characters - the mains, V and Evey - are a mix of bland and terrible. V is defined as a monster created by the State, but is honest and has a purpose. What he lacks is passion. He is reasonable, reasoned and deadly, but there's no real emotion in his words or his actions. Thus, when he tears off his mask at one point and speaks words of emotion to Evey near the end, they fall flat because he has expressed no passion. This works if the point is to say that vengeance kills the soul, but then it's hard to believe the willpower that keeps V alive through his final sequences. That is to say, if one has the passion to endure and keep fighting, one has passion and that passion should be evident in some of the dialogue. It's not.

Evey, on the other hand, is just incomprehensible. It is hard to believe that a young woman who appears to have some measure of privilege, who witnessed her parents being dragged away as a child would defy the State weakly or wouldn't already be well on the road to being a terrorist. What I mean here is that as we learn Evey's backstory, it is obvious that she is the perfect candidate for V's movement. Her parents were taken from her at a young age and she was raised by the State and she witnessed government brutality. So, one might think she was either already subverting the government or was terrified of the government. The opening scene of the movie, Evey leaving after curfew, indicates she is not the latter.

The only characters that are worth watching are the ones most would think are peripheral. Dr. Surridge, only briefly in the movie, makes one of the most intense marks on the viewer. Similarly, Deitrich is so beautiful in his naivete that when he broadcasts a satire against the totalitarian leader Adam Sutler (hmm . . . could they make that any closer to Hitler?) he believes he might get away with it. And the story Evey learns of the actress is simply heartbreaking. These are the characters, the ones that flit in briefly, make a point and disappear, are what brings empathy to the movie.

And Finch. There's Finch. Finch is a brilliant character who is so much more than a symbol. Finch investigates an act of terrorism against the Party and begins to ask himself - and others - the questions a totalitarian state hates. And he walks a tenuous line. But he does it wonderfully. He's the man to watch.

Unfortunately, because Finch is played by Stephen Rea, a middle-aged non-Hollywood type, he does not get top billing. He deserves it, though. He out performs Natalie Portman by a hundredfold. Rea makes the movie watchable. He binds us to the story and his character represents all that V wants to accomplish, so the viewer is most interested in his movement through the story.

Similarly, Stephen Fry doesn't sell movie tickets, but he steals every single scene he is in. He is brilliant as Deitrich and if he and Rea aren't nominated for their roles in this movie, they were robbed. As well, John Hurt is brilliantly directed. I'm not certain how much of what makes his character work was actually his acting, but he is terrifically directed. Why? Sutler, who Hurt plays, is the leader of the totalitarian England. Usually, this is a role taken by one with charisma. Hurt is never on screen where he is not yelling and being angry. No charisma whatsoever. Directed for brilliant irony.

Unfortunately, despite her wonderful, subtle and powerful performance, Sinead Cusack as Dr. Surridge has so little a part in the film that to suggest she receive a nomination is almost ridiculous. If there was a "Best Performance For An Actress With Less Than Five Minutes Screentime," she would be a shoo in.

The other performance of note - for its adequacy - is Hugo Weaving. Weaving is given the difficult task of emoting while behind a mask and he manages to do that. Not so much with his voice. Thus, we have the character problem of V not being emotional, yet executing possibly the most elaborate cycle of vengeance seen in a film. But as an acting problem, Weaving uses body language extraordinarily well to make V . . . well, human. That's the most we might ask for.

Outside that, it's all minutiae and the big themes. The big themes are obvious to any progressive who has been awake the last five years. Totalitarian states are built on indifference and the sloth of an accepting populace. Ironically, Portman encapsulates this entire sentiment in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith (reviewed here!) when, as Padme, she observes that democracy dies with applause, not horror. Here, the viewer is beaten over the head with the hyperbole of this, until one appreciates the details.

The main groups being persecuted are homosexuals and those who defy the State. So, for example, Muslims have all been expunged. Now, lacking Muslims, those who are killed are those who simply own a copy of the Koran. And while the rounding up and killing of homosexuals throughout the movie might seem over-the-top, one only has to look at the subtle obviousness of Totalitarian England. All of the characters in the movie are white. Homosexuals, then, become the obvious target. Why? They cannot be seen. Everyone who can be seen to be different is already gone. 'Gotta get those who are still hiding! That's the Totalitarian view. Divergence is the crime in a totalitarian state and it's something that V For Vendetta beats us over the head with. But, those who already get it will not come out feeling impassioned by the movie.

In fact, the greatest disappointment I experienced in watching V For Vendetta was in the audience. When the movie was over, the audience stood right up and left. No one was talking about blowing up the White House, so I suspect much of the audience just didn't get it. That's disheartening. This morning, I haven't heard a word about Fox News being hijacked by radicals who want us to fight our government's robbing us of our right to have our vote counted. Our "V's" haven't stepped up and when they don't, the writers and directors will have realized they failed.

For other films by the Wachowski brothers, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Matrix
The Matrix Reloaded
The Matrix Revolutions
Speed Racer


For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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