V for Vendetta (15)

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You can tell how serious V for Vendetta is trying to be by a brutal crew-cut inflicted halfway through the story on its heroine, Natalie Portman, a forcible scalping that echoes the Nazi-ish degradations glimpsed elsewhere: human experiments in secret prison camps, corpses thrown into a lime-pit, midnight raids on the homes of supposed "degenerate" types. The script derives from a graphic novel of the 1980s, but that hasn't stopped the Wachowski brothers (in their first venture since The Matrix) beefing up a bloodthirsty revenge-fantasy into a dystopian fable of political oppression and planetary meltdown. It's a film constantly in two minds, which, given that most blockbusters can barely muster evidence of one mind, must be considered a small achievement.

We are in a police-state London of the future, where a curfew has been instituted and nobody dares moan about the congestion charge. (I did mention that it was fantasy). A young woman named Evey (Portman, sounding more Australian than English) is caught out on the streets by police thugs known as Fingermen, who are just about to do their worst when a masked man springs out of the shadows and puts them to flight. He then takes the astonished Evey on a moonlight flit over the city's rooftops, the better to appreciate his handiwork - the Old Bailey being blasted to smithereens and a volley of fireworks to finish off.

The fireworks are important, for the masked man, known only as V (Hugo Weaving), has appointed himself as heir to Guy Fawkes - the key conspirator of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot and thereafter the whipping boy of Protestant England. V intends to carry through Fawkes's uncompleted mission and blow up the Houses of Parliament on the 5 November.

It is bold of the film-makers never to reveal the face behind V's mask, and bolder still to give him a long black wig like Cher's. Weaving has a distinctive voice (he was Agent Smith in The Matrix films) but, denied any facial expression, he struggles to impose himself as the romantic anti-hero he's meant to be. He seems rather a composite of previous masked avengers, notably the Count of Monte Cristo, the rapier-swishing Zorro and, given his love of quoting Shakespeare, Vincent Price's ham actor Lionheart in Theatre of Blood. Like Lionheart, V has grievances against specific people who wronged him in the past, including Roger Allam as a right-wing television demagogue and John Standing as a paedophile cleric, but unlike Lionheart he has somehow finessed this personal vendetta into a revolutionary fightback against political corruption.

The director James McTeigue hasn't much of a feel for the texture of London, and sticks to disappointingly vague interior shots of offices, prison cells and domestic spaces. There's a sequence featuring someone watching himself on a television that's inside his shower, but for all I know this appliance might even now be available at Argos. The shot of people watching television inside a "London pub" is unintentionally hilarious, an update of Hogarth presumably intended to clue-in American audiences ignorant of our boozy culture. Such details are nugatory.

Unfortunately the film isn't any better informed when it comes to socio-political forecasting. The problem is partly that the Wachowskis are updating a graphic novel from 1989 (by Alan Moore and David Lloyd) that was responding to the seemingly interminable rule of Thatcherism. Paranoia felt different back then. Nowadays, if Britain is ever to be subjugated, it won't be by fascist dictatorship but by bureaucracy; its people will be bored, not browbeaten, into submission. Similarly, the ranting chancellor played by John Hurt just wouldn't cut it in our native political climate, and nor would his Big Brother-style telecasts to the masses - they would simply switch over to EastEnders. The future tyrants of Britain won't rule by fear; they'll be Blair/Cameron types who want to be everybody's friend.

The film might have worked if it had made the schizoid promise of its central character a sticking point. V is initially portrayed as a psychotic dandy driven by revenge. Later, he is seen to be a rebel-visionary who wants to destroy the system by any means necessary. When those means involve a Tube train packed with high explosives you ask yourself how incendiary the film-makers might dare to be. Will V launch a bomb attack and risk killing innocents in pursuit of the greater good? Will Evey try to stay his hand and persuade him that terrorism is not the way? The answer turns out to be the most abject compromise imaginable. I felt a little sorry for Stephen Rea and Rupert Graves, who play cops who have spent most of the movie diligently uncovering V's identity only to be upstaged by a denouement that makes no sense whatsoever.

V for Vendetta tries hard to be contemporary in its doom-mongering, and references to The Koran, bird flu and suicide bombers will not go unnoticed. But in its ambition to weld a political message onto a comic-book movie it falls rather pitifully between two stools: anyone who bothers to read newspapers will scorn its allegorical intentions, while popcorn-munchers in search of a thrill will wonder why the dude in the mask does so much talking. "There is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there?" a character says at one point. He's right, but it would take a smarter movie than this to get close to explaining why.

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