V for Vendetta
Warner Bros
Directed by James McTeigue
Starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, John Hurt, and Stephen Rea
Rated R

It’s the near future and homosexuality is a crime punishable by internment, torture, and death. The news media, such as it is, is a wholly-owned and operated branch of the government. Art and literature which offend the church-run regime — whose omnipresent tagline is “Strength through unity, unity through faith” — are banished. Dissent against the holy government will get you thrown into secret detention camps, and everyone is under constant surveillance, kept in a perpetual state of fear via color-coded terror alerts.

But there are also things in V for Vendetta that neoconservative sorts may not care much for.

First off, the Wachowski brothers’ adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel takes place in the U.K., not the U.S., which after waging several imperial wars has fallen into anarchic civil war. It also turns out that faith-based totalitarianism doesn’t sit well with folks — especially Evey (Natalie Portman), a British Television Network wage slave whose politically active parents were murdered during the rise of Hitler-esque Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt). 

One night Evey tries to get home after curfew and is almost raped by regime hoods brandishing the regime’s blood-red double crucifix brand logo. Her savior is a guy in a cape, black bodysuit, and weird, eternally smiling Guy Fawkes mask named ‘V’ (Hugo Weaving) whose only superpowers are an incredibly quick-witted facility with the English language and literature, lightening reflexes, and some very sharp knives. (For the non-Anglophile: the character of V is inspired by the true tale of proto-anarchist Guy Fawkes and his failed Nov. 5, 1605, attempt to blow up what he viewed as a hopelessly corrupt Parliament.)

The classification of V as a “terrorist” — by the government first and, later, borne out by some unsavory, by-any-means-necessary acts of revolution — and his place as the film’s hero is a welcome indicator of the film’s respect for U.S. audiences’ ability to deal with ambiguity. This embrace of tragic human flux will later extend to a seeming bad guy regime detective (Stephen Rea), whose job it becomes to both capture V — now systematically assassinating assorted government louses, and promising to blow up Parliament on Fawkes’ anniversary — and capture Evey, who the regime perhaps mistakenly thinks is abetting V’s efforts.

Wisely tumbling to the fact that this is a great deal of information to convey — and we haven’t even mentioned the digression into the tragic story of a doomed lesbian film star which itself is weaved into Evey’s own tale — first time director James McTeigue (an assistant on assorted Star Wars and Matrix films) shoots his movie in a clean, unfussy style that allows both Evey’s political awakening and the stunning, iconic finale of mass revolt to unfold with minimal confusion and maximum impact.

With his face occluded by his mask throughout the film, Weaving does a bang-up job of creating a tortured, idealistic, murderous antihero fully aware of his own contradictions through body and hand language and, of course, that hypnotic, elastic-band-sounding voice that made his portrayal of The Matrix trilogy’s Agent Smith so unforgettable. Portman at first seems uncomfortable, but by the time she’s been “renditioned” by her captors — that is, shaved bald and tortured — she brings a fierce focus to her Evey. Her relationship with V never lapses into romance, thank God, but is instead a series of agonizing ethical reappraisals of her commitment to burning down the House.

The Wachowskis’ adaptation and McTeigue’s treatment of it is pretty much fearless. It never shirks from the gleefully obvious (a fat, pill-popping asshole talk radio host) the utterly horrific (a Dachau-like government atrocity leading to hundreds of lime-coated bodies dumped into a pit) or Goon Show-style absurdity, such when Evey’s TV show boss (Stephen Fry) stages a goofball battle between two Chancellor Sutlers, both accusing the other of being the real terrorist, while a double for V smirks from between their legs. While certainly not perfect, V for Vendetta is a feast of ideas, a furious Molotov cocktail of a tale, a valentine to the idea that art and information can change things, and the first genuinely relevant film of this bad new century.