Tuesday, March 21, 2006

R for Review (of V for Vendetta)

Sometimes, the most difficult thing about watching a movie is observing tremendous potential be squandered. V for Vendetta wasn’t bad. In fact it was pretty good. But it could have been great, maybe even fantastic. In a post a couple days ago, I remarked on how I couldn’t really figure out the main gist of the story from the trailer. Now, after having seen the film, I understand why. The story, was adapted from the Alan Moore series, which was eventually compiled into a graphic novel, and it is one of complexity and detail.

Natalie Portman plays Evey, a young woman who lives in a small studio apartment, works at a Television station, and generally abides by the laws of her totalitarian government. At the start of the film, Evey has snuck out past curfew, when she is stopped by “fingermen”, --the corrupt secret police of the government, who begin to assault her. Just when things are starting get really ugly, the masked crusader with a propensity for Guy Fawkes, V, jumps in, knives the fingermen, and saves Evey from a grim fate. So begins the strange relationship between V and Evey. V dazzles her with a display of explosive pyrotechnics, that destroy government property and are set off to rousing classical music. Evey is both apalled and amazed by this man who embodies so much gall and ruthlessness. While Evey is at work the next day, V infiltrates the TV station and hijacks the control room. V then broadcasts a mission statement, urging the British public take action at the conspiracy wrought by their dictator and government. He makes a plea for every citizen who values freedom to join him next November 5th to take Parliament down by storm.

This moment is the launching point for the entire film. When Evey saves V from being captured by the police in the station, she is knocked unconscious. The next thing she knows she is in V’s underground lair, a charming clutter of books, antiques, artwork, and other collectibles. It is here, where things become a little diluted for me. V informs Evey that she is not allowed to leave, because he would compromise both of their identities and safety. While she is a bit flummoxed at first, she also seems perfectly happy to admire his jukebox, and eat the delicious eggs in a basket he has cooked for her. We see a couple more scenes of the two of them “hanging out”, watching films and the like, and inevitably hear of Evey’s past. Evey came from a family of political activists; her father was a writer, and both he and her mother were involved in protests against the government. They were both killed by the military police, and her brother was a victim of the “St. Mary’s” virus –a horrible pandemic that struck a children’s school, and part of suspected bio-terrorism. Evey tells V that she wishes she wasn’t afraid, but she is, all the time. This is supposed to be the crux of Evey’s character, her past, and her fear of the future. But if so, it wasn’t conveyed very well in the film. Evey was one of the protagonists in the film, but ultimately I found her one of the less interesting, because the emotional journey of her character was muddled. At the start of the film Evey doesn’t seem to be distraught or scared. She listens to the proclamations of a tv political evangelist with a roll of her eye, and she certainly doesn’t seem too frightened to break the state enforced curfew. And what of her past? She doesn’t really exhibit emotional scarring from watching her brother die horribly, and watch her mother get dragged away by the police. As for her day to day life, Evey seems perky and coiffed at her job. I suspect that the filmakers wanted to intimate that Evey had beome a drone, content with the status quo, and unwilling to give much thought to the state of things in her country. But I don’t think they succeeded very well. Evey seemed too vibrant and happy–not apathetic, or scared, or resigned.

After a successful attempt to escape from V, Evey ends up at a former associate’s house, Gordon the Television host, with whom she had meant to dine with on the night she ventured illegally out of her house. Luckily for her, (and it does seem almost too good to be true) Gordon is one of the good guys, and gives her a spot of tea telling her she can merely stay at his place as long as she likes. When the police break into Gordon’s home for a seditious Television broadcast, Evey is “black bagged” and the next thing she knows she is in a prison, where her head is shaved, and she must endure torture and near starvation. But every time the authorities ask her to give information on V, she refuses. This is supposed to be the turning point for Evey, a metamorphsis, from a scared sheep into an empowered political activist. While she is in the prison, her cell mate who is about to die, slips her fragments of her autobiography scrawled on toilet paper. We learn that her cellmate, a woman named Valerie, was seperated from her lover, and imprisoned for her homosexuality. The last thing Valerie writes to Evey, is:

“I don't know who you are. Or whether you're a man or a woman. I may never see you or cry with you or laugh with you or get drunk with you. But I love you.”

It is a poignant moment, one which is meant to effuse one of the political statements of the film, which is that everyone is much the same, no matter our gender, age, orientation, religion, etc., and that this is what the governments wish to keep us from actualizing. And yet this gripping moment seemed to float out on its own, a piece that is meant to fall into the puzzle of the film, but doesn’t quite fit.

When asked one last time if Evey will give up information in order to save herself, she refuses and is suddenly let free. As she walks out of the prison she discovers that she has been in V’s home all along, and that he created this whole ruse to “rid her of fear” and “make her stronger.” Evey is livid; she is baffled and furious that he could have done this to her. V tries to calm her, telling her that it was the only way to set her free, and that now she had achieved the ultimate state of fearlessness. He takes her out on the roof, and as the rain pours down on her shaved head as she yells with emotion….yet, it is unclear exactly why. Again, what I think the filmakers were trying to imply within the context of the film, that only those who value their beliefs over their lives can truly be alive or effect change in their government. An interesting statement considering today’s political climate of 24 hour terrorism talk, yet muddy and unclear. I certianly don’t think they dealt with the fact that V had actually imprisoned and tortured Evey because “he loved her” and “had to.” This darker, sadistic side does not really jive with the rest of his character of protect the innocent, harm the guilty.

At the end of the film Evey pulls the trigger on the bombs which will blow up parliament. V has been killed, and she takes Stephen Rea’s character up to the roof to watch the explosions, just as V had brought her months before. When Rea asks her who V really was she says, “he was my father, my mother, my brother, …., he was you and he was me.” Again another piece of passionate dialogue, but I had a hard time believing the journey that Evey’s character had made to this end point, where she blows up Parliament. She left V after he released her from the “prison” –but where did she go? We don’t know. What was she doing? Was she out on the streets fighting the same battle he was? Unclear. Yet, she comes back after weeks or possibly even months, letting V pass the torch to her, and essentially becoming the new V. It just didn’t really add up for me.

I found V’s story to be more compelling than Evey’s. As V for Vendetta unfolds, we also follows the story of two detectives played by Stephen Rea and Rupert Graves, who are trying to locate where V’s hideout is. As the detectives begin to explore just what lays behind the masked figure, they also uncover a massive coverup on the part of the government. To me, this was one of the more interesting, albeit gruesome portions of the story. I was intrigued, learning about the test facility where V was shot up with drugs and tested in an effort by government scientists to study the human immune system. Yet V’s victimization by the hands of the government was only part of a larger conspriacy that they had orchestrated which culminated in the coming to power of the dictator and the military police state. At one point Stephen Rea’s character posits the question to his partner –if your government was responsible for the death of thousands in your nation, would you want to know? Again, another viable political question, and one that has resonance in our society, but it wasn’t properly woven in with the rest of the film coherently.

The other story that the V for Vendetta tried to tell, peripherally, was the story of “the people.” Throughout the film we saw shots of civillians in their home or local pubs watching various events on TV like the hijacking of their national channel by V, and the subsequent efforts by the tyrannical leader to quell any thoughts of dissent. Eventually we watch them take action against their government. This provided a neat little runner throughout the movie, and represented another political theme. The last moments of the film looked stylish (I loved the image of all the masked individuals running towards the armed men, and then taking off their masks all together), and were powerful. But they did not have the power that they could have had because it was yet another straggling appendage flapping in the wind, instead of an endemic part of the whole; none of it added up. This movie lacked the very thing that it espoused above all –unity.

First time director James McTeigue did a formidable job, all things considered. He has a great sense of visuals, and had dynamic camera work. The art direction was solid, and he seemed to have an intuitive sense about his actors. I think ultimately the biggest problem with the film was story structure. The film clearly came from an intelligent source and there was some poetic dialogue and some nice turns of phrases; the language was there. Only it didn’t mesh together within the construct of a larger story. I haven’t read the original source material, so I am unable to deduce just how difficult it might have been to adapt. But it would seem with this film, the writer/producer Wachowski brothers had vision, but lacked clarity. V for Vendetta had some great ideas, some striking images, and some solid performances. I was interested and engaged by the film because it was…good, but with some streamlining and restructuring, I believe it could have been remarkable.


Blogger The Coen Bros. said...

You know, I saw this last night and I really liked it a lot. It was great fun. I read the graphic novel and it is pretty complex source material. I think they did a decent job. I have a few problems. Evey's character is much darker in the original. I think she does drugs and becomes a hooker, the fingermen grab her, and *that* is how she met V. She was too well adjusted in the movie.

But still it was rousing and fun and emotional and, yes I'll say it, I cried during parts. Next up, Phat Girlz!

12:56 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

You pansy.

I just got the graphic novel today in the mail and can't wait to start reading!

1:02 PM  

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