Anarchy in the U.K.


Adapted by the Wachowski brothers—and helmed by their Matrix assistant director James McTeigue—from Alan Moore’s graphic novel, V for Vendetta is a most provocative piece of pulp fiction. You can bet there won’t be many other movies at the multiplex extolling anarchist terror.

V for Vendetta, which opens March 16, is nothing if not topical in its fantasies. The action is set in a totalitarian London dominated by fake news and ruled through xenophobic panic. Historically, however, the movie takes a longer view. A pre-credit sequence walks through the 17th-century Gunpowder Plot, in which Guy Fawkes and a cabal of Catholic fanatics hid 36 barrels of explosives beneath Parliament to blow the British government to kingdom come. England’s not-quite 9-11 (a pretext for a crackdown on Catholics and foreigners), this thwarted conspiracy—celebrated every year as Guy Fawkes Day—has an even more hysterical significance. Had it been successful, the explosion would have vaporized half of London and thus, in its state-of-the-art carnage, offered a foretaste of Hiroshima.

Supremely tasteless, V for Vendetta, with the mysterious V (Hugo Weaving) haunting London in an insouciantly smiling Guy Fawkes mask, was scheduled to have its premiere last November on the day of the Plot’s 400th anniversary. The opening was delayed out of deference to last summer’s London subway bombings, as well it might have been. What’s remarkable about the Wachowski scenario, as opposed to Moore’s original, is the degree to which it stands Fawkes on his head—recuperating this proto–suicide bomber as a figure of revolt. (Moore, incidentally, has disassociated himself from the film.)

A movie of multitudinous comic book tropes, V for Vendetta is predicated on secret identities, floridly alliterative dialogue, and gnomic bromides: “There are no coincidences, only the illusion of coincidence,” V grandly explains. In other words, it’s all about the plot. (McTeigue’s pedestrian mise-en-scéne is elaborate without being particularly detailed.) Like the movie in which he dwells, V is partial to 19th-century fictions like The Count of Monte Cristo, even as his social function is grotesquely hyper-contemporary. Name and origin unknown, V is blank slate and screen for projection. V for Vigilante.

V is orchestrating, literally, his own gunpowder plot. With his mocking fixed grin, this political superhero plays Joker to his own Batman. V’s full-face disguise recalls the ski masks of the Italian Red Brigades; his slashing trademark is a recognizable permutation on the anarchist “A.” This empty signifier argues for terror as a semiotician might—an attack on symbols—and he paraphrases Emma Goldman on the revolutionary importance of dancing. His subterranean museum of solitude boasts a Wurlitzer jukebox. A romantic, he’s partial to Julie London’s “Cry Me a River.”

Moore’s stories appeared throughout the ’80s, conflating Thatcherite Britain and Orwell’s dystopia, imagining a post–World War III regime founded on racial purity, sexual conformity, and Nazi-style concentration camps. The Wachowskis tweak this premise to tweak the U.S. It’s 2020, the year of perfect vision, and to no one’s disappointment, America has collapsed in chaos. Awash in secret detention camps and biological weapons (including avian flu), the U.K. is a Muslim-phobic fascist state (Koran consigned to the Ministry of Objectionable Material) ruled by a fascist Chancellor who came to power in a biological Reichstag Fire.

A diminutive, doe-eyed Falconetti: Portman in V for Vendetta
photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

The Chancellor appears—both to colleagues and the TV-fuddled masses—as an outsize video image. (Having played Winston Smith in the 1984 1984, John Hurt plays a sort of Big Brother here.) Meanwhile, V’s lone disciple, Evey (Natalie Portman), daughter of two disappeared social activists, works in a version of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. Given V’s essential abstraction, she’s the movie’s most human presence. A former Broad-way “Anne Frank,” Portman adds Saint Joan to her baggage—once captured and processed by the police, she looks like a diminutive, doe-eyed Falconetti.

V and Evey meet cute when he saves her from police gang rape. Other forms of social control include a snarling Bill O’Reilly type known as the Voice of London. His opposite number (Stephen Fry) is a subversive chat show host who ridicules the Chancellor and pays the price for his music hall stunt. Clearly, the Wachowskis have not entirely abandoned the idea of the Matrix. When V blows up London’s central criminal court, Old Bailey, the fake news goes into major damage control, bragging that it was an intentional demolition job. Fog City is so shrouded in conspiracy that, in tracking down the mystery terrorist, the government’s hangdog investigator (Stephen Rea) has no alternative but to investigate himself.

If The Matrix betrayed the Wachowskis’ acquaintance with Jean Baudrillard, V for Vendetta suggests they’ve been perusing political philosopher Antonio Negri—both the old ultra-left Negri of Domination and Sabotage and the new Michael Hardt–collaborating Negri of Empire and Multitude. (The latter book even name-dropped The Matrix as an example of how Empire feeds on the creative “social productivity” of the ruled.) V’s dictum that “people shouldn’t be afraid of their government, the government should be afraid of its people”—is a Cracker Jack box restatement of Negri and Hardt’s notion of democracy for all. And the theorists would surely approve of V as the antithesis of a Leninist revolutionary elite.

This hero not only has no name but also no actual personality. (Why hire Weaving? The role could have been played by a computer program.) At a key moment in V for Vendetta, the Negri-Hardt multitude—mysteriously networked and absurdly masked like their faceless non-leader—takes to the streets and waits expectantly. Their patience is rewarded by a superbly irresponsible finale that conflates the “1812 Overture,” the Rolling Stones, Malcolm X, and Gloria Steinem. Absorbing even in its incoherence,V for Vendetta manages to make an old popular mythology new. Impossible not to break into a grin: It’s the thought that counts.