Saturday, March 18, 2006

Don't you know that you can count me out (in): V for Vendetta review

What, V worry?

Alan Moore, notoriously cranky and wickedly bearded writer of the graphic novel that V for Vendetta is based on, reportedly said that an early draft of the film he read was "rubbish".
It's a pretty good bet that most of that rubbish survived to its final incarnation. V is a mess, and not even a glorious mess in the way that something like Fight Club is: it's a not a failure of ideas, it's not a failure of vision, it's a simple and dreary lack of talent.
Watching V camp around the first half-hour or so of the film reminds you of what was once said about Darth Vader: that in every film of the saga besides The Empire Strikes Back, he just looks like a tall guy in a shiny black suit. There is nothing menacing or intriguing about V. The direction of the film is too basic for that. Not a mysterious creature of the underground, just some ponce in a Guy Fawkes mask who uses the letter 'v' endlessly. When he saves Evey from the Fingermen with his v-laced opening monologue, you just wait for it to end. And wait. And wait.
There's nothing clever in the dialogue, nothing interesting about the way the scene is staged or the performances therein. At this first, most critical juncture of the film, we are completely and utterly bored.
About those performances: Hugo Weaving, supplying the voice of V, does his usual wonderful voice-over job (he has one of those great attention grabbing, instantly recognizable voices); but the party leaders, especially John Hurt as Sutler, are overbearing to the point of numbness. We've seen the whole "big head of the fascist leader screaming at his underlings" thing before, in fact in practically every dystopian sci-fi film ever made. We've seen the gratuitous cut to the rotted out teeth of said fascist leader before. We've seen everything about this world before.
Also: is it possible that Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley are getting their scripts mixed up? It seems they should have switched places in most of their roles lately. Certainly Keira wouldn't have been struggling through the entire film with her british accent. Natalie seems lost in it, and can't emote through it. She can't blame George Lucas for her wooden performance here. It's only when Evey is shaved and tortured that Natalie breaks through with something different. When V unveils the truth she is believably devastated. But again, the boring corporate-training-video simplicity of the direction undermines the power of her scene.
Another irritating thing about the adaptation is that there is scene after scene of characters describing what has happened to them, instead of these moments being shown. There is no reason that we can't see these scenes, either in flashback or worked into the film. Some of these moments, like Evey's co-worker not recognizing her in line at the store after she leaves the Shadow Gallery, could have been quite effective. Some, like the Inspector's visit to Larkhill, were crucial in the book,and their absence is remarkable.
The film also differs from its source material in ways that, while minor to the overall story, create a far different atmosphere. The first time we meet Evey Hammond in the comic, she's a poor factory worker preparing to sell herself on the street for the first time; which she attempts, awkwardly, and is accosted by the fingermen, leading to V rescuing her.
In the film, Portman is just some chick who works at a TV station (therefore allowing V easy access later on), and she's on her way to her boss's house. Instead of a desperate, undereducated sapling, the Evey of the film seems self-possessed and intelligent. V doesn't seem to have very much to teach her about the world: she already can quote Macbeth in a future where those works were presumably destroyed long ago.
Also, and this is more damaging to the flow of the story, much of the film is given over to police procedural hokum, while Inspector Finch (a wasted Stephen Rea) tracks down V. He gets every piece of evidence at the exact moment that the film requires him to know it; it's screenwriting at its laziest. There is the intimation that V has been planting the information for him, but the movie doesn't give us the slightest clue as to how V can do this. I didn't notice a computer in the Shadow Gallery, but clearly V has access to internal records of the most fearsome fascist government since the Third Reich.
The film also changes the all-powerful Voice of Fate, Prothero, into a figure more clearly derived from televangeslists and right-wing television pundits; just another frothing, screeching talking head. But a huge difference from the book is that the people don't seem as enthralled by their government's lies as in the book. In the book, when the Voice of Fate is silenced by V, the populace is thrown into fear and confusion.

In the film, there is no such disruption.

In the book, Evey is taken by the police as she is about to shoot the man who killed her lover, Gordon.
The revelation that V has been behind Evey's torture later makes it clear that he has snatched her at that moment to focus her emotions from dull anger to focused revenge. The lack of this moment in the film makes its V seem even more cruel.
All of this is not to say that Moore's V is perfect: far from it. It shows all the signs of a young writer struggling with dialogue and pacing.
What I had hoped, though, is to see more of the fascinating world and mood that Moore and David Lloyd created so well.

The ending of the film again differs from the book, instead of Evey taking on the mantle of V after his death, the citizenry of London all don masks and march (in a ridiculous overhead CGI shot) on their government. But there's a huge missing link here: what reason do they have to do this? What excuse has been given in the film for this change? There are scenes of rioters taking on the fingermen, but that's not enough. The idea of a slower, personal revolution in Moore's book seemed not only more plausible, but more powerful.
Underlying both versions is the message that (and to the filmmaker's credit they manage to convey it) "people should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people." This is all well and good, and I'm not offended by the sight of Parliament exploding or the bronze liberty of the Bailey building being detroyed, but the notion (that haunted the Wachowski's Matrix films also) of killing people to set them free seems counterproductive and ultimately self-destructive.
V is blinded by revenge. The government is blinded by greed. Both of these are a kind of addiction to power. Both sides render their opponents inhuman to make them easier to kill. Both sides kill to maintain their power.
But, what happens the day after the people march through the streets? What happens when the people of London take their power back? What happens when that system becomes corrupt, and how long will that freedom last?
V for Vendetta: D


uncle fucker said...

Hey, where'd you get those V For Vendetta pages to scan, anywayz? A sidewalk sale in Noe Valley, maybe? I'd always thought that, of all the Alan Moore works not yet ritually abused for film, V was a better bet than Watchmen because it had almost no connection to superhero conventions to distract the audience and if only you could attract a director or screenwriter who wasn't afraid of endorsing anarchy -- oh wait, never mind. I forgot which universe I was living in this week. I might still go out and see it, though. Now since we're talking sideways about The Matrix, where is your INVISIBLES post?

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