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Based on a graphic novel, ‘V for Vendetta’ is political and unrealistic – in a good way

by Katie Wilber

A vendetta is more than mere retribution or retaliation. It’s more than holding a grudge or seeking vengeance. A vendetta is a bitter and destructive feud in which the opposing parties show no mercy in their quest for the blood of their enemies.

In “V for Vendetta,” a tortured man known only as V stops at nothing in his drive for revenge against the members of the Hitler-esque government that destroyed him, a government that rules by fear and persecution, a government hiding atrocities.

Set in Britain some years down the road, the country has become isolated under the control of an oppressive dictator who has stripped the citizens of all personal freedoms. (Sound familiar?) Secret police patrol the streets; cameras watch all and those who oppose the regime are quickly dispatched. Enter V, a man determined to end the tyranny and restore the power to the people.

Hugo Weaving (Elrond in “Lord of the Rings” and Agent Smith in “The Matrix”) gives a marvelous performance as V. He brings to life in glorious fashion a brilliant, talented, empathetic and hand-drawn man with a plan to blow up Parliament on Guy Fawkes Day. A miniature history lesson: Every Nov. 5, England celebrates the day Guy Fawkes was executed in 1605 after being caught in a tunnel under Parliament with barrels of gunpowder and a plan to blow it up. V wants to emulate Fawkes’ plot and bring down the government.

Natalie Portman is Evey, a girl whose chance encounter with the man in the mask leads her to help him carry out his plot. Stephen Rea is Chief Inspector Finch, the man assigned to find V who instead uncovers the horrific extent of the government’s crimes and conspiracies.

Based on a graphic novel from the early 1980s, “V for Vendetta” provokes thought. Instead of blowing up as many buildings as possible, the film focuses on the intellectual, moral and ethical issues at hand. There are more sword fights and eloquent speeches than gory gun battles and epithets.

Like George Orwell’s “1984” and Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” the film keeps oppression, corruption and fear at the plot’s center. Extremism also plays a key role, both in terms of a government’s control and an individual’s plan for vigilante justice.

V was badly burned in a terrible explosion at the detention center in which he was held, so he pulls a “Phantom of the Opera” and always wears a mask: a Guy Fawkes mask. The mask forces Weaving to use more emotion in his voice than the other actors, but he enhances the perpetual and sometimes eerie smile of the mask with slight movements of his head and specific arm motions.

Portman goes from a scared girl to a fearless woman who helps V realize – albeit a little too late – that maybe there’s more to life than being swallowed by the need for revenge. Portman gives a piercing performance in an emotional breakdown when she realizes the identity of the person who tortured her.

“V for Vendetta” might be set in Britain’s future, but the reality is still recognizable. The film leaves out any over-the-top and implausible advances in technology.

Still, much of the film isn’t realistic. But it isn’t trying to be. Of course it’s ridiculous to assume that V could rebuild a previously demolished section of the London underground in only 10 years. Of course it’s ridiculous to go along with the idea that he manages to kill about half a dozen armed policemen after they use him for target practice.

But it doesn’t matter. This is a film about overcoming oppression, corruption and fear in a dramatic, graphic and eloquent fashion. The film works because we want it to, because we want to see the bad guy die a horrible death and because we want to see truth and righteousness prevail.

While V is a hero and a revolutionary, he is no saint. His personal disputes get in the way of his political ideals. His plan to kill everyone who crossed him seems to make him forget about his larger goal of freeing the country from cruel subjugation.

In a time when the Orwellian predictions that once were scoffed at seem to be slowly becoming reality, “V for Vendetta” is almost a call to arms, a warning against the ruthlessness of a too-powerful government.