V for Vendetta is easily the best film to come out this year and the upcoming summer season, which will no doubt be rife with spectacular action movies, will have a tough act to follow. What makes V for Vendetta such an engrossing and satisfying film-going experience is how intelligently it balances action with ideas. The story takes place in London in the not-too-distant future and follows V (Hugo Weaving), a masked revolutionary who plans to blow up Parliament on November 5th, which is known as Guy Fawkes Day in England. Fawkes, as we learn in the film’s prologue, was involved in a complex plot to assassinate the King and all of the members of Parliament on November 5, 1605 by planting explosives beneath the Parliament building during a joint session which was attended by all Parliament members and King James I. The plot was foiled, and Fawkes and his conspirators were tortured and put to death. V, who wears a Fawkes mask, becomes involved with a young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) and seeks to involve her in his plot.
The story comes from a graphic novel of the same name published in ten installments nearly twenty years ago and is produced and adapted for the screen by the Wachowski brothers, whose incredibly successful Matrix trilogy has given them a large, rabid fan base who I’m sure have been eagerly awaiting their next project. They will not be disappointed. Fans who loved The Matrix films (or at least the first one, which was the best) will love V because it’s an even better movie. Their storytelling is sharp and engrossing, aided in no small part by first time director James McTiegue, who assisted directed on all of the Matrix films. I’ve rarely seen a film that so masterfully commands its medium, using melodrama to its fullest effect, without ever seeming campy or manipulative.
The actors make this story (which is in many ways a political parable) come to life. Natalie Portman gives her best screen performance to date. Evey is a difficult and demanding role and one of the great things about this movie is watching her character grow and change. I’ve always been iffy about Portman as an actress. It seems unfair to judge Portman by the Star Wars movies because, let’s be honest, Anthony Hopkins couldn’t make dialogue that bad work and anyone acting opposite the talent vacuum that is Hayden Christensen has nothing but my deepest sympathies. But both Garden State and Closer showed she had real promise, even if neither film fully utilized it. She makes the story work and her chemistry with Weaving is terrific. Weaving replaced an actor who was fired early in production, some of whose scenes are still in the film with Weaving’s voice piped in. Weaving is commanding, using his voice and body expressively to make up for the absence of his face. Doughy-faced Irish actor Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) is also strong as a police inspector working on the V case. Equally good is British character actor Stephen Fry, in a small but crucial role as a kind of British Jay Leno. Spookiest of all is John Hurt as the totalitarian chancellor of England who we see almost entirely on a Big-Brother-esque monitor projection.
A few warnings are due before attending this film. Some of the violence is very graphic (although this is one of the few films where I would argue in favor it—it is necessarily upsetting). Also, if your politics are fairly conservative, you may not appreciate the film’s anarchist message. V for Vendetta is unapologetically, blatantly political. While some may feel hit over the head with the ideas at hand, the topicality of issues such as terrorism, censorship, civil rights, freedom of speech, war and pacifism cannot be denied. The film also evokes World War II and the Holocaust quite potently. What makes V for Vendetta unique is it is a thinking person’s action film (the fight scenes and knife work are bad-ass, and elegantly choreographed) and the movie isn’t afraid of murky moral waters. V is a riveting character, but not necessarily a nice guy—he is both hero and villain. It’s a film where you’re not sure how you want it to end because you don’t know what’s right. You leave the theater troubled, deep in thought, full of questions and unsettled—but that’s the point. V for Vendetta doesn’t want us to be comfortable.
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