Film review -- V for Vendetta (2005)
Opposing the regime is a lone revolutionary known only as V (Hugo Weaving), a man of almost superhuman intelligence, stamina, and fighting skill. It's implied that he developed these abilities partly as a result of medical experiments performed on him at the "Lark Hill" concentration camp, making him a monster of the regime's own creation. V's face is never seen; he always wears a distinctive mask modeled on the face of Guy Fawkes, an actual British revolutionary who attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605, and whom V has taken as his inspiration. V's goal is to embolden the masses to rebel against the regime. He is also tracking down and killing the individuals who brutalized him at the camp years before. V is a man who can literally bring a knife to a gunfight and win.
Here, protagonist Evey (Natalie Portman) encounters some of the regime's plainclothes enforcers, known as "Fingermen" -- and then V shows up:
Observe the corruption which is in fact endemic under authoritarian regimes; the Fingermen apparently use their power to extort sex from women fairly routinely, without fear of punishment. There is also a bishop who freely indulges his penchant for forced sex with young girls.
V subverts the state's own media to get his message out, even managing to widely distribute copies of his mask so that others can act anonymously while invoking his image. Discontent spreads and dictator Adam Sutler (John Hurt) becomes increasingly unhinged as his regime starts to lose its grip:
As some of the visuals suggest, this film is explicitly a work of art and much of it cannot be taken as literal storytelling -- I found its imagery enthralling. It does also take considerable risks with its story, though. V is not so unambiguously heroic as these clips suggest. He is ruthless and violent and willing to use almost any tactic to achieve goals he considers important. In particular, in the middle of the film, he carries out an elaborate and bizarre act of "liberation" which is extremely disturbing. Evey eventually comes to accept it; if I were in her position, I do not believe I could. Each viewer must make his or her own judgment.
I should note that V for Vendetta is surprisingly gay-friendly for 2005. Stephen Fry has a minor role as a gay man who escapes persecution (for a while) by remaining closeted, and an emotionally-wrenching sequence follows the story of an actress imprisoned for her lesbianism and ultimately killed.
V recognizes that the evil and violence of fascism make the use of even deadly violence against fascists themselves both legitimate and necessary. Here, he has a final confrontation with Mr. Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith), the sadistic party leader, and a group of his thugs (V is wearing body armor):
I suspect V would not be among those who feel squeamish about punching Richard Spencer.
The film is not flawless. Sutler's death seems perfunctory for such an important figure, and the circumstances are implausible. We don't get much sense of what V is fighting for, aside from his desire for revenge against his former tormentors. While the final scene between V and Evey is emotionally powerful, the resonances of the following climactic ending are all wrong -- V achieves the aim of his predecessor and posthumously succeeds in blowing up the Houses of Parliament, the architectural icon of British democracy, an act which would surely horrify the crowds of citizens watching, not inspire them. But these shortcomings do not detract from the unconventional brilliance of the rest of the work.
It's actually hard to imagine a fascist regime, especially a theocratic one, arising in Britain with its vigorous democracy and deeply-secular society. But V for Vendetta has perhaps become more relevant to Americans, with our Republican party long dominated by fundamentalists and growing ever more authoritarian.
Thanks to artist Marc McKenzie for calling my attention to this movie.