This is not a review. The intention of “Debated Films” is to shed light on different perspectives over contentious movies to determine if it deserves praise or criticism. These will be previously released films, so be aware there will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen this film, you may want to before reading this piece.
It’s becoming difficult for narrative films to tackle political subjects. Granted, older films like The Great Dictator (1940), Dr. Stangelove (1968), and JFK (1991) were all heavily debated, but their quality and popularity was enough to overshadow the arguments. The cinematic landscape is very different today, as things like Vice (2018), Joker (2019) and The Hunt (2020) were so divisive that people barely discussed the actual films. This isn’t to say we should only engage with films passively, as it’s important to understand what films are trying to say. It’s important because certain films have a far reaching influence and have shaped the beliefs of some viewers. In the case of modern classic V for Vendetta (2005), the trick is figuring out if that influence has been harmful or helpful.
Based on the 1988 Vertigo Comics graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, the story takes place in a near future where England is ruled by the Norsefire, a neo-fascist party with the all powerful Adam Sutler (John Hurt) at the head. As expected, this regime keeps people in line through propaganda, fear-mongering and violence. When Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) is about to be assaulted by the secret police, a mysterious vigilante and ‘terrorist’ V (Hugo Weaving) rescues her, making her a government target for associating with him. Meanwhile, V makes his intentions known throughout the nation, stating that on November 5th he will blow up parliament as an act of revolution against the government. This act (along with V’s mask) evokes the real historical figure Guy Fawkes, who attempted the same thing on the 5th of November 1605.
While the source novel was written as a response to British Thatcherism of the early 1980s, director James McTeigue and screenwriters Lana and Lilly Wachowski updated the thematics to more appropriately reflect political tensions of the early 2000s Bush administration. Examining real world democratic politics through the lens of a fascist dictatorship seemed a little extreme, but it does give insight into how some members of the public viewed their leaders at the time. The novel depicts the Norsefire gaining power through legal means, whereas the film shows the party gaining power after they secretly released a deadly virus and were the only ones capable of curing it. Essentially, the government created a crisis and tricked the nation into supporting them. This functions perfectly as a cinematic bad guy plot, but the parallels to 9/11 conspiracy theories and the war on terror wasn’t lost on viewers.
This thematic change makes the film’s political stance feel morally black and white, as oppose to the novel’s many shades of grey. The novel pits fascism against anarchism and doesn’t side with either. The film’s shifted focus streamlines things, pitting conservatism against liberalism and ultimately comes down hard for the liberal side. The various government agents are either intolerant monsters, or grow to hate themselves for their conservative beliefs. By contrast, normal people like Evey, Deitrich (Stephen Fry) and the wider populace are forward thinking, distrustful of authority and tormented by oppression. Structurally, this sounds like a dramatic cliché, but it successfully makes the viewer’s need for revolution incredibly palpable. While none of this is too surprising for a film about political revolution, the real point of interest comes in the depiction of V.
V has become a symbol far greater than other popular film characters. Even though he is a masked man with enhanced strength and fighting skills, his tormented past at the hands of the Norsefire places him as morally righteous. He has the support of oppressed people, and by extension the sympathy of the viewer. His goals align with ours, ensuring that we perceive everything he does as just, revelatory and heroic. It’s no wonder V and Guy Fawkes masks have become real world symbols against oppression. However, V isn’t traditionally heroic, as he brutally murders his enemies without remorse or hesitation. Instead of addressing the implications of fighting for change with violence, the film rarely places judgement on V. In a way, the film’s depiction of V highlights the idea that true justice must be achieved through the loudest actions.
Displaying V’s violent acts as necessary initially appears justified considering he’s essentially battling Nazis, but as the story unfolds there are some things he should be held accountable for. This refers to his treatment of Evey, which builds to a confronting narrative twist. Evey is seemingly captured by the Norsefire and put through torture and interrogation. After maintaining her will power even upon the threat of execution, it’s revealed the capture was a ruse set up by V. He explains that he hated himself for doing it, but he ‘had’ to do it so Evey would know firsthand the oppression he went through. This builds to the emotional moment of Evey in the rain, but V’s violence towards her is forgiven a little too easily. The implications of this plot thread hasn’t aged well and was even a tough pill to swallow in 2005. This aspect puts V’s methods into question, but there is another equally powerful aspect that ages better every day.
Specifically, this refers to the subplot about Valerie (Natasha Wightman), an actress in a same sex relationship with Ruth (Mary Stockley). Despite being disowned by her parents, Valerie lived happily with Ruth and they apologised to no one for loving each other. We see the rise of the Norsefire through their eyes, which feels heartbreaking as Valerie and Ruth are soon detained in concentration camps. In 2005, it was unheard of for a major Hollywood film to show a lesbian relationship with such humanity, nor was it common to show it without any hint of titillation. Many LGBT commentators highly praised this storyline for its honesty and complexity. This narrative thread was ahead of its time, and appreciation for it continues to grow. Most importantly, this is the lynchpin that holds the narrative together, as V’s entire ethos can be traced back to a desire for equal rights.
Upon V for Vendetta‘s release, there was an initial shock and some mixed reviews, but ultimately the film was embraced by audiences. The film’s moral, social and political themes didn’t go unnoticed, but the discourse wasn’t enough to overshadow people’s enjoyment of it. You can bet that if it was released now, it may not have become a modern classic. Most likely, it would’ve been boycotted or review-bombed. V for Vendetta is a highly contentious film which reveals new layers as time goes on. It’s kind of an anomaly, as V for Vendetta arguably brings viewers together even though films like this usually cause separation.
Best way to watch it: On the 5th of November. Obviously.