It’s little wonder that Alan Moore has officially disowned the movie version of his dystopian comic series V for Vendetta. As adapted by The Wachowski Brothers (those reclusive pseudo-philosophers who mask their ideological shallowness in a verbose camouflage of anagrams and palindromes, e.g.: “People shouldn’t be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.”), Moore’s raw response to the present and prospective ills of Thatcher-era England becomes a dully neutered examination of our own big-budget monstrosity, The War on Terror. I refrain from calling Vendetta a critique because the film essentially acts, as one colleague put it, like a two-hour-plus tranquilizer. It doesn’t rile one up so much as it strokes our myopic egos into submission, distracting us with literal fireworks (à la Romero’s Land of the Dead) while its sham creators greedily raid our pockets, hearts, and minds.
Any truly revolutionary spirit we possess is counteracted by Vendetta‘s adherence to the typical. The Wachowskis take Moore’s story (which, after a recent re-reading, seemed all the more like a musical composition that requires each individual reader to be a singularly interpretive instrument) and Hollywoodize its structure, making V’s (Hugo Weaving) destruction of Parliament the film’s balls-out climax as opposed to its inciting prologue. This simple act of narrative juggling defangs many of Moore’s recurring motifs and effectively muddles their meaning. The Wachowskis make their first mistake by recasting the 17th-century Catholic dissident Guy Fawkes (whom V adopts—in the form of a goateed, perpetually grinning porcelain mask—as his anarchistic persona) as a kind of martyr-hero when, in reality, he’s thought of as an inept joke, burned in effigy on the fifth of November of every English year while the gathered public recites a sardonic rhyme (“Remember, Remember…”) that the film erroneously turns into a somber call to arms. In the comic, V’s destruction of Parliament effectively redefines his symbolic visage—by completing Fawkes’s plot to obliterate England’s center of government the mask ceases to represent Fawkes and becomes something else entirely. Out of an old English jest and from the ashes of a mocking, rather contemptuous celebration of one man’s incompetence emerges a new revolutionary who, with the sins of the past as his evidence, attempts to rewrite the present for the sake of the future.
The Wachowskis similarly rewrite history, but only in the name of the almighty dollar (or pound, depending on the exchange rate). In the Vendetta film, V calls upon the English populace to gather at the foot of Parliament on the fifth of November in one year’s time. Yet unlike the comic V, who hijacks a television broadcast and brilliantly scolds the fearful English public like a displeased day-job manager, the movie V just wants a show of rebellious, Riefenstahl-lite solidarity and, in the case of Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a little bit o’ chaste nookie on the side. Evey is the character most radically changed from the comic, and all for the sanitized worst. Recall the way in which Clive Owen’s arm strategically blocked Portman’s snatch in Closer and you’ll have an inkling of how Moore’s conception of Evey (as an amalgam of a Victorian-lit saint/whore and a women’s lib androgyne) has been ruinously reworked. The film Evey is a career girl who wouldn’t be out of place in Mary Tyler Moore land and from frame one you never doubt that she’s gonna make it after all. Far from a progressive rethinking, it plays instead as misogynistically retro: the scene where Evey, at V’s request, dresses in a fuck-me schoolgirl getup to ensnare a pedophilic priest makes little dramatic sense minus the needy desperation inherent to the comic Evey, who clings to V both ideologically and physically, always with a somewhat incestuous emotional undercurrent.
This sterilization of the character’s sexual confusion mutes the power of the film’s centerpiece sequence in which V tortures Evey in an attempt to bring forth her deeply buried, defiantly individual sense of self. In the comic it plays as a discomfiting and protracted series of intellectual and near-physical rapes, complete with expressionist chiaroscuros and skin n’ bones Holocaust imagery. It’s a brilliant illustration of one of Moore’s many points (that our true nature must often be dragged out of us, kicking and screaming) and so all the more dispiriting to see mangled in the film version. Portman can’t escape her coddled physique; when her hair is forcibly shaved to the scalp she reminds one less of Falconetti and more of a Paris Hilton-esque socialite who accidentally wandered into Supercuts. The sequence somewhat rights itself when, in a near-complete carryover from the comic, Evey finds letters in her cell, written hastily on toilet paper by an imprisoned lesbian named Valerie. Though filmed in that amber, straight-male sanctified glow often accorded to mainstream cinematic portrayals of lesbians (while gay men continue to have their on-screen erotic lives concealed by tasteful, obscurantist half-light), these scenes—which are greatly helped along by the performance and voiceover work of Natasha Wightman as Valerie—manage to cohere into something poetic and, by the end, you half believe in Evey’s transformative, empathetic tears. But it is all botched by the character’s subsequent rain-drenched revelation, a birthing and baptism scene made ineffectual because Evey is clothed—in Technicolor-orange prison garb no less. (You’d think that, of all people, the creators of The Matrix would recognize the glaring necessity of a “naked, as if from the womb” visual metaphor.)
With Stephen Rea soberly cashing a paycheck as Chief Inspector Finch and John Hurt doing a one-note Big Brother/Bush/Blair stand-in as the fascist Chancellor Sutler, it is left to Stephen Fry as the kindly talk-show host Deitrich (an entirely Wachowski creation, I believe) to inject some much-needed meaning into the proceedings. The role is something of a conceptual nightmare (a societally-repressed homosexual who greets each day with a cheerfully derisive laugh, toeing the party line while hiding forbidden texts and paintings in his house as if suicidally tempting the inevitable), but Fry is up to the task and makes the Wachowskis’ ridiculously coded dialogue sound nearly profound. In the film’s best scene—where John Hurt also gets to deliciously cut loose—Fry acts as ringmaster to a Benny Hill-esque skewering of Chancellor Sutler and one gets a fleeting glimpse of the challenging and, yes, supremely entertaining film that might have been.
On the whole Moore’s graphic novels end on moments of individual introspection, so the mass uprising that climaxes the film version of V for Vendetta feels like the ultimate betrayal. While the restless English populace—decked out in matching Guy Fawkes masks and garb—descend on the city of London, a train filled with explosives hurtles toward Parliament. Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” acts as thundering accompaniment to the ensuing explosions and the temptation, I think, is to look upon this big-budget representation of iconographic destruction as a challengingly subversive statement, something like, “In order to move forward, we must sometimes go back.” (See boys, I can do it too!) Yet the scene lacks that necessary measure of aural/visual insanity, something akin to Josef von Sternberg’s “1812 Overture”-scored finale to The Scarlet Empress or, hell, the cannon fodder montage from Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers, which would make it in the least bit effective. (Director and Wachowski protégé James McTeigue’s amateurish mise-en-scène primarily alternates between medium close-ups and two shots, with a few digitally enhanced slow-mo scenes thrown in to satiate those viewers whose hands are eternally glued to their joysticks).
When the crowd of V’s unmasks before the smoldering remains of (God bless you, Clark Griswold) Big Ben-Parliament, they stand perfectly still and stare forth coldly and impassively—they’re like the wax figures from Madame Tussaud’s performing the rave scene from The Matrix: Reloaded. Gazing over this multiracial panoply of faces (and listening to Portman’s deathly serious voiceover about how V is “all of us”) it’s hard not to view these stoic souls as the Wachowskis’ metaphorical representation of their audience. Not surprisingly, this supposedly all-inclusive cross-section of humanity comes across as little more than a faceless multitude to be coddled and exploited by ultimately meaningless laser light shows. Yet the writers neglect an important verity: once the fireworks have ended, we must inevitably leave the communal darkness and become ourselves again. And when we have emerged into the light, we might best make use of our time regained—a period in which, no doubt, those responsible for this abortive fiasco are distractedly stuffing their pockets with limitless amounts of green—by conceiving, planning, and executing a vendetta all our own.