Political commentary and comic book movies are not always a seamless mix. As many filmmakers over the last decade have discovered, striking a suitable balance between conveying complex social messages and still retaining a gripping, action-driven narrative can prove an exhausting feat. Bryan Singer’s X-Men films for instance had a propensity to marginalise the key themes of social exclusion and coexistence in favour of habitually ostentatious set-pieces. Similarly, the Russo Brother’s admittedly enthralling Captain America: The Winter Soldier was hampered in the third act by abandoning the 70’s “conspiracy noir” tone it had hitherto developed in favour of an explosive conclusion that felt somewhat jarring in comparison. The Wachowskis’ 2006 cult favourite V for Vendetta, however, feels almost wholly removed from these trappings, presenting a subversive, thematically mature film that has developed an enduring cultural impact. The one drawback is, like a lot of Wachowski flicks, it’s too clever by half.
What can be admired about V for Vendetta is its striking audaciousness. Made in 2006, when 9/11 was still traumatically branded into the public consciousness, it is a wonder that this adaptation of Alan Moore’s dystopian masterpiece, which makes a hero of an explosive-wielding anarchist, was ever given the greenlight at all, especially as the Wachowskis made visible efforts to update the source material to reflect the political insecurities of the War on Terror. The film, which charts the struggle of Hugo Weaving’s masked vigilante “V” in his attempts to overthrow the totalitarian British government, is actually extremely effective in conveying the dystopian nightmare of Moore’s graphic novel whilst also displaying uniquely cinematic qualities. The Wachowskis plunge the audience into a world of tyrannical dictators, sinister “finger men”, intricate propaganda networks and Orwellian surveillance that it is easy to get lost in. This effect is compounded by Adrian Biddle’s stunning cinematography, capturing the tense, claustrophobic aesthetic that he mastered in James Cameron’s Aliens, and the Wachowskis, particularly in the film’s first half, appear not to waste a frame in engendering a dark, foreboding tone that compliments this nicely.
The real strength of V for Vendetta, however, lies in the performance of its three leads. Hugo Weaving pulls off a remarkable feat with V; we never see his face, yet his voice and body language alone exude an imposing physical and intellectual presence. His command of Shakespeare and Dumas are just as vital to his tortured character as his skill with the dagger. On the face of it, this should be a thankless task for any actor, but Weaving not only succeeds in creating a compelling, enigmatic antihero but also in fashioning a cultural icon, the Fawkesian mask he sports in the film now being used by the hacker site anonymous and “occupy” movements across the globe, almost a decade later. In short, Weaving’s V is the very picture of anti-authoritarianism. However, all films require an avatar for the audience, a relatable character that we can project ourselves onto, and this is where Natalie Portman’s Evey Hammond comes to the fore in arguably her best performance until her deeply unsettling turn in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Evey in the film, unlike her seedier portrayal in the comic, is initially seen portrayed as weak and simpering, a product of the culture of fear constructed by the government, yet her character development here feels natural and absorbing, symbolic of the central thesis of the film: that only through overcoming our fear are we truly free.
But the real standout performance is Stephen Rea’s inquisitive and world-weary Inspector Finch. Brooding and subversive, Finch’s crisis of confidence in his government and innate disillusionment whilst also seeking to catch V by any necessary means is perfectly played here. Most of the supporting cast also effortlessly weave into the film’s narrative whilst not appearing overly theatrical or forced. Stephen Fry proves not only entertaining but poignant as an entertainer struggling to conceal his liberal disposition and homosexuality from the ruthless administration, whilst Tim Piggott-Smith is suitably repulsive as Peter Creedy, Chancellor Sutler’s sociopathic right-hand man.
Where the film falls short of course is with a trait that is all too apparent with numerous Wachowski efforts: at times it becomes so self-regarding that it begins to lose track of the entertaining pace and tone that characterised the first half of the film. While there is no equivalent of the Matrix Reloaded “architect scene” that stops the movie dead in its tracks, the latter half of V for Vendetta has serious issues with pacing largely brought about by an over-indulgent prison sequence. While the slow build up in the film’s first half added some much needed character depth and emotional gravitas, the second act features a lot of repetitive material and weighty, philosophical dialogue that, plot-wise, does not add much to the film. In many respects, the Wachowskis’ script is so dense in places that it forces Martin Walsh’s editing into being not quite as tight and controlled as in many of his previous efforts such as Chicago.
Although the Wachowskis’ script is commendable for its cutting political insights, their desire to adapt the material into a more “Hollywood-friendly” product, with a clear cut disparity between the protagonists and antagonists, results in the film losing a lot of the moral ambiguity and complexity that made Alan Moore’s novel so iconic. V, for instance, is considerably whitewashed here when compared to his far more unstable character in the novel. This streamlining of the source material also results in quite ham-fisted and overt storytelling, changing the name of the despotic chancellor from Adam Susan to Adam Sutler is just one instance of the Wachowskis opting out of the more subtle approach used to convey a fascist dictatorship by Alan Moore. Not to mention Roger Allam’s propagandist Lewis Prothero, who appears to have all the qualities you might associate with a Fox News anchor.
However, for all its imperfections, V for Vendetta stands up admirably as one of the most accomplished pieces of comic book adaption in the last twenty years. Not only does it stay true to the anarchic vision of Alan Moore, but also provides a spectacle of rich, character-driven mayhem that is the perfect accompaniment to any cinematic bonfire night.