Alan Moore is perhaps the most celebrated writer in all of comic book-dom. He brought new life to the then-stodgy DC comics line with his hauntingly human vision of Swamp Thing. He then took all of comics to a new level with his more relevant than ever Watchmen mini series, considered by many to be the greatest comic ever printed. So for a guy at the forefront of all that is great in a storytelling medium, why is it that so many of the movies based on his work sucks? There was Wes Craven's mediocre attempt at doing justice to Swamp Thing, and the infamous League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which prompted a frustrated Sean Connery to retire from acting. Moore didn't help matters, by decrying any licensing of his work the moment it was announced, and refusing to offer his assistance, which has worked so well for contemporary Frank Miller. It seemed that every Moore adaptation was doomed to failure.
Things didn't look much better when the Wachowskis, coming off of the horrendous disappointment that was the two Matrix sequels, announced they would be writing the movie version of V For Vendetta, one of Moore's most controversial and outspoken pieces. When James McTeigue, the Wachowskis' second unit director, was announced to helm the project, it seemed like this was going to be nothing but a time waster for the filmmakers. Imagine my surprise (and probably everyone else's) when the finished product turned out not just to be good, but was actually great.
Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) lives in a world very different from our own. The United States is in shambles, torn apart by famine and civil war. The rest of the world isn't faring much better. In this world of chaos, one country has been able to maintain order. Great Britain. But it has done so only because a tyrannical religious dictator, Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt), has the region in an iron grip. Thus Evey is assaulted one night by a group of secret police, only to be saved by a mysterious yet verbose masked terrorist who identifies himself only as "V" (voiced by Hugo Weaving). V begins to shake the malaise of the general public, while also systematically assassinating many high ranking members of government. Evey is caught up in the middle, torn between her love of V and her fear of the government.
V For Vendetta was originally written by Moore as a reaction to the voraciously conservative Margaret Thatcher government in Britain. Resurrecting it in 2005, while America was embroiled in a foreign war, led by a religious and conservative president who was proving to be very divisive with the American public, was a brilliant move. In V's world, Britain is very well kept, maintained, and technologically advanced, but at the expense of many personal freedoms, including freedom of speech and thought. In many ways, the picture is more Brave New World than 1984.
If it weren't for Sutler, that is. Sutler is the definition of Big Brother, appearing almost entirely through a giant TV screen, and backed by an army of spies and troops. John Hurt plays Sutler with an acerbic bite. He's gained power through deceit and death, and now he's paranoid that someone will take him out the way he took out his predecessors. V is his inadvertent creation: a monster with a soul. In the comic, V was much more of an outright anarchist, puncturing a society without freedoms by juxtaposing it with a society with no rules. The V in the film seems to be more classically democratic, stating, "People shouldn't be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people," echoing in a way the words of Locke's social contract. Hugo Weaving hits all the right notes, giving V the perfect combination of levity and gravitas.
The real anchor of the film is Evey. The audience empathizes with her. She reflects their hopes and fears, and acts as their mirror. Natalie Portman gives a fearless performance, digging in to Evey's depths and allowing her head to be shaved on camera. She has great chemistry with V, despite his face always being masked. The character is more headstrong and independent than her comic book counterpart, to the betterment of the film. She's aided on the supporting cast by Stephen Fry and Stephen Rea, both filling in their niches nicely.
And James McTeigue? He keeps an able hand on the proceedings, directing the action with style and a little flair. He's not at the level of the Wachowskis' at their best, and the climactic action sequence feels a little like a low-tech version of bullet time, but for the most part, he stays true to the material. Changes were made from the original comic, the most infamous being the ending. Moore's original ending is more direct, with a better defined role for Evey. The film's ending is a little more vague, although in some ways feels like it wraps things up more neatly. While it may remain a bone of contention with some of the comic's more ardent fans, I think it works well, and is a fitting way to send off the best adaptation of Alan Moore's work to date.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Warner Bros. released V For Vendetta on HD DVD over a year before releasing it on Blu-ray. Part of the reason was due to an interactive bonus feature that Blu-ray was not capable of at the time of the disc's release. Now WB is going back and releasing those HD DVD exclusives.
Note: The images in this review do not represent the image quality on the Blu-ray.