A Look Back at V for Vendetta

“I know his name was Guy Fawkes and I know in 1605, he attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament.” Natalie Portman narrates in a faux-English accent, “I know,” carrying the implication that the American audience does not.

Author, Alan Moore’s name will not be found anywhere in the film’s credits; Instead it simply states, “Based on the graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd.” After 2003’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the writer requested that his name be removed from any future adaptations of his work. But the Wachowskis’ have gone the extra mile with their screenplay. Not content with simply reworking the original graphic novel, they have also made the decision to rework British history.

“Remember, remember the fifth of November,” our heroes recite. Yet nowhere in the film will you hear a mention of the fact that November 5th is meant as a thanksgiving of the failed terrorist attack or how Guy Fawkes and his compatriots planned to restore Britain’s Catholic monarchy. Instead, in its attempt to appeal to general American audiences, the movie decides to make Guy Fawkes and his belated-successor, V as appealing as possible.

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It’s not difficult to see why the internet culture found V to be such a relatable figure. The titular character first appears saving Natalie Portman’s Evey from a gang of government “fingermen.” Afterwards, he quickly delves into a spiel full of archaic language and alliteration that seems rehearsed more to impress upon Evey his own cleverness and wit than it does to communicate any real ideas. The terrorist figure echoes a pretentious college boy who has cornered a girl at a party. Mid-monologue we cut to Natalie Portman side-eyeing with an anxious look on her face; A young woman gripping her red solo cup and trying to find a way to exit the conversation. “Are you like a crazy person?” she inquires.

V encapsulates the modern nerd. He is a man who spends his time in his “Shadow Gallery,” a subterranean layer that basically amounts to a lavish basement, filled with various pop culture relics. When he’s not planting bombs, he spends his time playing pretend sword fights against suits of armour and reciting lines from old movies. The killer is an easy sell to a certain brand of adolescent males. His impressive knife throwing skills and flashy black outfit are just a bonus.

In 2006, Vendetta’s subversion of the terrorist figure may have come across as charming. While V’s race is never explicitly stated, he is coded as white. To some the domestic terrorist might have seemed a refreshing change from the typical frightening “ethnic other.”; His race and nationality meant as an indication that he is on “our side.” An unsettling, but unspoken rhetorical device of the film.

But in 2018, it’s not the tragedies of 9/11 that cross my mind as I watch the movie. Instead, I am reminded of the ever increasing number of mass shooting that occur within our country. No longer do I view the “domestic” or “white” aspects of the character as the subversion. Instead the subversion rests in the fact that the figure is referred to as a terrorist, or even the more euphemistic term of “freedom fighter.”

There’s a scene where the government controlled news report informs citizens that the terrorist has been exterminated. Footage is shown of one of V’s hostages, tied and dressed in the terrorist’s own uniform, being gunned down by law enforcement. While the government holds back the truth of the situation to sedate the people, the film remains silent for the rest of its runtime about V’s complicity in the man’s murder. Evey never seems to remark upon the fact that if the bomb V had set up had not been defused, she, along with several of her coworkers, would be dead. 

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Though ideas of tolerance and the embracement of diversity shine through every now and then. Stephen Fry’s character speaks to Evey about his closeted homosexuality and fear of their totalitarian government. “You wear a mask for so long you forget who you were underneath.” Evey reads a letter written by Valerie, a gay woman who was the victim of government experiments. It’s a moment that stands as one of the most emotionally resonant ones of the film, flowing with empathy and compassion.

Yet the thought creeps in, that in this moment that conjures up images from the historical atrocities of the Holocaust and Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, it makes no mention of the systemic racism that motivated these tragedies.

Or how V sees the only way to show Evey his idea of truth is through kidnapping and torture. “Your own father said that artists use lies to tell the truth.” V later tells her. “Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.” Like too many women in film, it seems that the only way that Evey can achieve her goals is to allow the narrative to beat her down and strip her of everything that she has. V simply continues the cycle of abuse inflicted on Valerie and him. “What was done to me was monstrous.” V says to her.  “And they created a monster.” she responds.

And what exactly is “the truth” that V wishes to deliver? His speeches wallow in political vagaries. “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” It’s a political platform built on viscerality. Relying on rousing phrases and exciting explosions, it doesn’t take long for the film to veer into the rhetoric of conspiracy theorists. “What if the most horrifying biological attack in this country’s history was not the work of religious extremists?” Detective Finch asks. “What if,” the film postulates, “our own government was responsible.” The multifaceted reality of politics is too mundane for the movie. It needs its single and central villain of government to romanticize its hero.

The end of Vendetta can be seen a fantastic display of unity, as all the deceased are finally free to take off their masks and stand together as one. They look on in awe as Parliament is destroyed. But we never see that promised tomorrow or are told what we will be built in its place. We are only left with the vague promise that they will somehow make Britain great again.

At the time of this posting V for Vendetta is available on Netflix streaming and on DVD at the Simpson Library.

Comments, be them in agreement or disagreement, are greatly appreciated.

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