March 18, 2006

Movie Review: V For Vendetta

(No spoilers of significance in this review.)

I really enjoyed this graphic novel (read: grownup comic book) in college, and seeing the movie released today, I was curious enough to want to see it. I hadn't imagined The Wife would have interest in it, but she agreed readily enough to go.

American viewers will be amused by the details of what happens to America in the ficticious future of this film, but they will largely be unimpressed by the Guy Fawkes imagery because the ambiguous holiday of Guy Fawkes Day and the story of that rather unusual character is absent from our national mythology. We prefer our heroes to be unambiguously moral; that's why even today Americans resist dwelling on the moral lapses of John F. Kennedy or even George Washington.

Martial arts and swordplay enthusiasts will find meat upon which to dine, but not a lot -- the director tries to deliver a "balanced meal" of a vegetable plate (character development), starches (back story), and red meat (action), which leaves the consumer of the film wanting more of the really good stuff and somewhat unsatisfied.

As movies go, it was... a movie. It captured some of more arresting visual images from the graphic novel nicely, and the casting was quite good. The acting was disappointing, especially from a cast of this caliber. Natalie Portman was the perfect choice for Evey, but she did not convey the appropriate shift of emotion at a critical point in her relationship with Hugo Weaving's V. While Stephen Rea looked the part of the beleagured, generally honest cop who really just wanted to do the right thing (including putting on a noticeable amount of weight), he seemed to sleepwalk through the role.

John Hurt, as the evil Chancellor, was interesting and appropriately Stalin-like; but he's got being a crazed head of state down and there hasn't been anyone as good at that role since... well, since John Hurt defined the role of Caligula in I, Claudius. In fact, indulge me a moment, Loyal Readers, in offering an homage to the extraordinary roles John Hurt has played -- not only did he steal the show in I, Claudius, but he was extraordinarily impressive in the title role of The Elephant Man -- despite wearing seven hours' worth of makeup in every scene. It was John Hurt who had the misfortune to be the victim in the scariest scene I've ever seen in a movie theater -- you must remember when the newly-hatched Alien burst out of his chest during breakfast, a scene indelibly written in the minds of anyone who watches movies at all. I even enjoyed him in his very small role as Mr. Ollivander, the wand merchant, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. You get to see a lot of John Hurt in V For Vendetta -- I don't mean he has a lot of screen time, I mean you get to see every damn pore on his face.

My biggest complaint about V For Vendetta is that Hugo Weaving had to do all of his acting behind the Guy Fawkes mask that "V" wears. Hugo Weaving is a fine actor, as he proved in The Matrix -- taking the role of an emotionless computer intelligence and endowing it with studied arrogance and disdain that gradually transformed into loathing and ultimately, hate. (I was not as impressed with his wooden performance as Elrond in the Lord of the Rings movies, but then again he wasn't really the focus of those movies anyway.)

So I think perhaps all that star power was wasted for the film. Certainly having four big stars in the movie (yes, Stephen Rea is a star, damnit, don't you remember how good he was in The Crying Game? Check out his IMDB entry.) gave it a lot of publicity it would not otherwise have got. But with Stephen Rea mailing it in, Natalie Portman missing the delivery in her critical "rebirth" scene, and Hugo Weaving hidden behind a mask, the money could have been better spent on choreographing more cool knife fights.

Because when there was action, the action was good. There was not enough of it for my taste -- there was a lot of talking about feelings going on, though. Somehow, the high-minded quoting of Shakespeare from the graphic novel translated into pretentiousness, and there was a lot less joy in the anti-hero's bloody antics. The movie is now very self-conscious about the fact that its central figure is, by any definition of the word, a terrorist. To point out the evil his adversaries personify simply does not wash the blood off of his hands.

V For Vendetta was originally scheduled for release in July last year, but was delayed in the wake of the Underground bombings in London. A good move, considering that it's a movie about a terrorist -- and I'm certain that the rather explicit theme that "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" is going to fall flat in today's political climate. This was the wrong movie for the times, that's for sure.

With that said, it does play with some thought-provoking ideas and gratefully, the movie did not skimp on the back story of the graphic novel -- which is what made the story so compelling back in the late eighties when I first read it. At the time, the idea of a neo-fascist government using fear of terrorism and simple-minded appeal to religion to take power seemed alien and far away. Now, the bad guys in this movie seem comic only in their heavy-handed, unsubtle approach. Real-life totalitarians -- secular or religious, leftist or rightist -- would be more clever in today's age, I would think, and would learn the lessons of their predecessors. They would do what Augustus did in Rome two thousand years ago -- preserve the appearance of democracy and freedom, tolerating manageable levels of dissent and oppositiong while keeping the reins of power tightly, but presentably, in hand. To take power in a sophisticated democracy with a long tradition of free speech and an information exchanging tool like the Internet would require methods more subtle than those of a Kim Jong-Il or a Josef Stalin. Because the villians were portrayed as so heavy-handed, the message of the movie was heavy-handed also; there was no room for subtlety or nuance, but hey, it was based on a comic book so what did you expect?

My ultimate verdict -- If you have no interest in this movie, you can afford to let this one go. If you have some interest in this movie, you can afford to wait for the rental. That includes if you are interested in the movie for the performance of the actors. If you are a huge V For Vendetta fan, you've already seen it anyway and you won't care very much about my opinions.

1 comment:

Pat R said...

watched V for Vendetta recently, loved it. eye-candy effects, amazing how much character they developed into a mask, then again, maybe he was more than a mask...