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V is for Vendetta; G is for good film

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One of the first popular creative works to question our concept of terrorism didn’t come after 9/11, but almost 20 years before it. Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, a series of comics about a revolutionary named Codename V who dismantles a power-drunk government from the inside, was first published in 1983. Moore has completely disassociated his name with the film based on his work, calling the Wachowski brothers’ script ‘“rubbish,’” but with respect to Mr. Moore, I have to disagree. V for Vendetta is as incendiary a film as one can expect from a studio system that takes focus group whining as gospel, and while it loses something in translation, what remains is still an amazing spectacle.

The events of the film, directed by Wachowski protégé James McTeigue, take place around 2020. England has been locked down by its government, which has spent the past two decades cleansing the dangerous elements ‘– homosexuals, African-Americans, anyone with too much Irish blood and basically everyone who is not white and English by birth ‘– from its streets. Curfews are strictly enforced, conversations are monitored by roving surveillance units and the Leader (a barking mad John Hurt, clearly delighted to be on the other end of the gun 22 years after 1984) controls everything his people see and hear.

Festering quietly in this walled-off dictatorship is the intricate plot of a masked vigilante (Hugo Weaving) who conducts a series of subversive acts ‘– strategic demolitions, assassinations and media hijacking ‘– that threaten to bring down the order that has kept Britons constricted and isolated from the larger world for a generation.

Weaving (The Matrix, Lord of the Rings), whose face never appears from behind his Guy Fawkes mask, does a wonderful job of conveying emotion with only his vocal inflection and gestures. V, he says, is an idea rather than a person, and by the end of the film it certainly feels that way, mostly thanks to his graceful performance. Natalie Portman’s turn as V’s accomplice Evey is similarly impressive. Even if she’s the perennial nice girl, Portman is a fine actress, and Evey’s character is well-acted and sympathetic, as Portman’s characters usually are.

The story unfolds over the course of a year, between two November 5ths, in which V reminds his countrymen what their lives were like before authority’s boot came to rest on their necks. While I understand Moore’s complaints, I still think the film version of V for Vendetta is effective. It’s less complex and less intelligent than its source material, but that still makes it two to three times more complex and intelligent than the majority of major-studio films these days.

The key to enjoying the film is understanding that it is not about America in particular ‘– Moore is an Englishman who wrote his story about England in a dystopian near future. Neither England nor the United States is presently under a dictatorship, though it’s undeniable that the England of the film came to its system of government through some of the avenues we presently find ourselves traveling: unease about cultural plurality, impending world war and yes the threat of terrorism.

The message seems to be that no country is special, in that certain circumstances act as a recipe for oppression and totalitarian rule anywhere in the world, at any time. Whether or not one agrees with this notion will almost certainly determine if that person views V for Vendetta as an important film or a shrill work borne of abject paranoia. Personally, I think one could easily draw parallels between V and the fathers of this country who thumbed their collective nose at British rule to form the United States. To my knowledge, the word ‘“terrorist’” didn’t exist then, but the ruling party line had similar terms to describe these colonial upstarts. In that regard, V for Vendetta can be viewed as a tribute to government by the people, for the people, though that isn’t the only way one could see it.

V for Vendetta is still a tough nut to crack. For a film as articulate as it is, and one that is billed as ‘“an uncompromising vision of the future,’” it still compromises the message of the original work, which was unabashed in its pro-anarchic philosophy and less forgiving of the ruling class in the end. These compromises have led to a sometimes oblique and frustrating product, one that shies away from some of the more overt statements of the original.

But I think V for Vendetta is important because it will foster heated debate in a wider audience than the comic ever could have reached. It raises some important questions about the lens through which we view cultural conflict. Most contentiously, it posits that not all terrorism is created equal, and that simply labeling someone a terrorist doesn’t mean that history will judge them so. That might be a dangerous, morally relativistic thing to say, but the one solid message the film delivers is that ideas and expressions aren’t something to be feared, and will flourish even in the harshest circumstances. Above all, one thing is certain: the long winter of mediocre cinema has ended with a resounding bang.

If you don’t e-mail your comments on this article to glen.baity@gmail.com, the terrorists win.

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