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Back With A Vendetta

Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Imagine a world in which the most powerful country of its age, asks – nay, demands – complete obedience from its citizens. Strict curfews are under order every night.

“Those caught breaking curfew will be prosecuted without leniency or exception,” barks High Chancellor Adam Sutler, the totalitarian regime’s leader, over giant video screens and televisions wired into every home in the country.

This world is the reality faced by citizens of Great Britain in director James McTeigue’s “V for Vendetta,” a film architected by Larry and Andy Wachowski – the masterminds behind “The Matrix” and its two sequels. Based on a graphic novel of the same name written by Alan Moore, “V for Vendetta” offers a dark, dystopian vision of a corrupt government that wills its subjects to act, think and feel in line with their ruler’s iron fist.

In exchange, Sutler (John Hurt) and his underlings offer a land devoid of poverty, pestilence and crime for England’s civilians. But at least one Brit refuses to cooperate – a shadowy vigilante named V (Hugo Weaving). Garbed entirely in black save for his ghostly white, porcelain mask, he attacks government operations and recedes into the shadows. And each time V accomplishes his mysterious goals, Sutler counters with a flood of propaganda, attempting to cover up the truth behind the demolished buildings and hacked television signals.

But one fateful night, V meets his match when he rescues Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) from the British secret police and takes her back to his lair. A timid but open-minded girl, Evey was orphaned as a young girl when her parents were murdered for speaking out against Sutler’s rising regime. Evey is perceptive enough to realize that the government is wrongly holding the freedoms of its people hostage. But she fears repercussions and remains mired in the only world she knows – just like the rest of the English landscape.

As she struggles to stay afloat in V’s strange new world, Evey realizes there’s more to her savior than his expressionless mask. V is hardly a ruthless killer, though he will advance his one-man mutiny mission by any means necessary, in the words of Malcolm X. But will Evey – and in turn, the rest of the English people – open their eyes and consider him a freedom fighter? Or simply the dangerous terrorist vilified by Sutler’s media?

Perfectly cast as the two protagonists, Portman and Weaving both shine in their respective roles and share an undeniable chemistry. Portman’s character exudes intelligence and strength, yet maintains a naively innocent touch. This is her story as much as it is V’s, and she never once lets the audience forget that.

Easily one of her best roles, “V for Vendetta” is a milestone marker for a young actress that has already established herself at the forefront of her generation. Long gone is the wooden dialogue and awkwardness that plagued Portman in the “Star Wars” prequels. Given the right material, she proves herself just as capable in an intelligent blockbuster like “V for Vendetta” as she was in her quietly poignant role in Zach Braff’s “Garden State.”

Remarkably, Weaving channels every fiber of V’s emotionality solely through his powerful voice – and still manages to command every scene he appears in. The film never reveals V’s true face, trapping Weaving behind a fearsome version of a Greek comedy/tragedy mask. Fortunately, the script grants Weaving’s character plenty of meaty lines and he capitalizes on every opportunity.

In one segment early in the film, V launches into a conversational salvo, dropping every imaginable word beginning with the letter “v” into a string of prose to explain his presence and his motivations. It’s enough to make a lesser man’s head spin, but Weaving delivers it with such eloquence that the audience can’t help but gawk and strain to make out every word of the speech.

Weaving’s V is charming, erudite and cultured in a country where conformity is the only valued attribute. He quotes Shakespeare, swashbuckles against a suit of armor while watching “The Count of Monte Cristo” and triumphantly plays the “1812 Overture” while blowing up a building – a renaissance man if there ever was one.

The Wachowski brothers’ screenplay has been deemed one of the closest interpretations of Moore’s 1988 graphic novel. Self-proclaimed fans of Moore’s work, the Wachowskis wrote a first draft of the script in the 1990s, before starting work on “The Matrix.” Several changes – mostly in the third act – have been made to the plot to update it for the early 21st century, as well as for purely dramatic reasons when translating the original story to the screen.

And while David Lloyd, the graphic novel illustrator, has voiced his support for the project, Moore has retreated and asked for his name to not appear in the film’s closing credits – just as he did for the overly commercialized interpretations of his previous works, including “From Hell” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”

“V for Vendetta” was originally slated for a Nov. 5, 2005 release date, exactly 400 years to the day from Guy Fawkes’ plot to blow up Parliament. But it was pushed back, presumably to create some separation from the July London bombings. Although the film’s producers denied this speculation, controversy still surrounds the film’s apparent glorification of terrorist actions. It’s hard to watch the events unfold on screen without associating them with those of 9/11 or the London bombings.

But the Wachowskis and McTeigue – previously the first assistant director on “The Matrix” films – have succeeded in delivering a no-holds-barred, visceral film experience. “V for Vendetta” is thought-provoking and succeeds as much on the strength of its characters as its impressive set pieces – enough to be remembered as a rarity among modern action films.