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Home > Culture and Society

TFT Film: 'V For Vendetta'

7 April 2006

Every now and then someone brings up how 'dangerous' it is for films to portray violence, car chases or blowing stuff up in a seductive manner. The trouble is of course that blowing stuff up, especially, is entirely seductive to the eye - it's rather hard to turn your gaze from a healthy blaze. Eyes aren't known for their moral queasiness, and they enjoy a rippling burst of oranges and reds until your brain tells them they shouldn't. The implications are uncomfortable, but hey, so are the seats, and video games are *so* much worse. However, writers the Wachowski Brothers and director James McTiegue have hit on something properly frightening, and when you consider it, properly worth putting a certificate on. 'V for Vendetta' has all the usual action film stuff to shield your children from - knives, torture, blood, bludgeoning, explosions, torture, human experimentation - alright, so maybe a bit more than the usual. But it demonstrates that nothing is more dangerous than ideas. It's about them, it uses them, it gets used by them, it isn't quite sure how to handle them, it's... much like the rest of us, in film form.

'V for Vendetta' is based on a graphic novel and made by the writers and director who made 'The Matrix', although it's possibly better not to know any of that prejudicial pedigree up front. You could guess, anyway - it looks and feels very different to the shiny extravagance of the Keanu Caper Parts I-III, but it's got a certain lustre to it, an unabashed gorgeousness. There's a big silly fight in there which has most of the swishy signatures of balletic Matrix fisticuffs - apparently they couldn't resist, and besides, it's what the public wants. But then this film is, on one level, about terrorism and fascism and censorship and freedom and clashes of ideology, things you don't expect to find in blockbusters. It still isn't clear by the end, after all the glorious moments and all the iffy ones, after negotiating plot holes and almost being reduced to tears, what has the upper hand. It isn't clear if this is a standard big-budget action film cynically using the idea of Ideas to propel it along and give it a nice USP, or big ideas being smuggled into the cinema in an attractive, studio-pleasing blockbuster mask. If it's the latter then bravo, but it's uncertain as to how well it really works, and if it's actually a mite irresponsible in its cavalier introduction of incendiary concepts to your average popcorn-chewer who's there for the knife-throwing only. But then we've never really thought that filmmakers, unelected entertainers as they are, have any real moral responsibility beyond making sure none of the actors are chopped up by chopper blades and that the extras put their styrofoam cups in the bin. And what's wrong with prodding complacent viewers into thought once in a while? Even if it's really easy to get the wrong end of this fizzing cinematic stick?

The masked hero of the film is a terrorist. He's terribly English and urbane and eccentric, which obviously makes it alright for him to blow things up. The film itself is terribly English and urbane in an unselfconscious way, which pleasingly contrasts with the all-American production values. It's stuffed full of terribly urbane Englishmen. John Hurt is a baddie. Stephen Fry is a goodie. In trying to establish where 'V' is coming from, the presence of Fry in particular adds several hundred points to the 'solemn, righteous and with a bit of good old subversive intent' column. Fry gives it gravitas and credibility, and loveability. He talks matter-of-factly in one scene about the necessity of hiding his sexuality. It's a very touching scene. There are a number of these moments - tender, measured, meaningful things that really have no business in a glossy thriller. Fry's character also highlights the importance of satire and free speech. Naturally, no good comes of it. That's a horrifying scene.

The film gradually reveals a dystopian totalitarian Britain in which the rule of government is absolute; comprehensive surveillance, rampant censorship, curfews and mysterious disappearances are now a way of life. You can't be gay or read the Koran or eat butter. It's very subtly done - surprisingly, given that if you're adapting a graphic novel for the screen you're practically contracted to go hogwild with your whole gothic fascist dystopia gig. But the people and the places are stubbornly normal and familiar. That's terrifying enough on its own, and adds more points to the 'righteous' column. It gets worse in so many ways - the terrorist, who wears a Guy Fawkes mask and plans to blow up Parliament after a year of subverting minds, killing policemen and blowing smaller stuff up for practice, is lonely and amusing and completely unavoidably lovable. What are you supposed to do with that? You're supposed to see him as a *freedom fighter*. Oh, bugger.

It's a problem, and the difficulty of it is never properly addressed. There are other things that tick the 'exploitative trash' boxes. The leads are fairly neutral - the non-starry Natalie Portman, and the noble enough Hugo 'Agent Smith' Weaving. But there are elements that aren't any different from any other big Hollywood film. It taps straight into what makes you misty-eyed about civil liberties with various images and devices, and as such is perhaps as cheaply manipulative as any trashy piece of weepie crap; same goes for the big sexy explosions'n'junk up to a point. Yet you can't gripe about a big film doing the things big films do, especially when this one does more than the average. And you can't really begrudge it its spectacular moments, its flashes of beauty. Of course Parliament goes up in the end (oh, spoiler alert), and it's an amazing moment - usually the flaming destruction of buildings in films represents nothing more than violence itself, if not actual hatred and nastiness. This time it clearly represents hope for the future. So it's a joyous moment, although your mind can't quite grasp that and wants to revert to the normal neutrality of looking at the pretty colours and feeling a bit uncomfortable. Investing things that go 'boom' with meaning is quite a feat for any film, and you admire that at the same time as you admire the explosion itself.

There's room in 'V for Vendetta' for idiots to decide that terrorism is justified in the name of freedom, but it more than justifies any residual dodginess. Besides, it would take an especially ambitious and well-organised genius with a trust fund to pull off any kind of copycat stunt. Given the subject and execution of the film, it's just rather heartening that it's been made and is being shown without any fuss. It makes you feel a bit soppy about the freedom we enjoy; you want to stretch out in it for a second, like starfishing yourself in a bed. It also makes you newly indignant about ID cards and about people who complacently mouth that 'if you've done nothing wrong you've got nothing to worry about'. It makes you worry afresh about what happens when you acquiese to restrictions in the name of security. The most important things leak out in the most mainstream entertainment.

The final sticky problem is that V keeps coming out with things like 'Artists use lies to tell the truth, politicians use lies to cover it up.' That might be the writers talking, or it might just be the writers making money. The trouble is that you can't search the masked face for clues. They're probably all communists,

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