It will no doubt seem a bold claim to argue that V For Vendetta is the greatest movie ever made. Most people think of Citizen Kane, The Godfather, or even Pulp Fiction when such discussions on film arise. Naturally, this is a subjective piece, but I’d still ask you to humour me and bear with me as I state my case.
Of course, spoilers may follow.
V For Vendetta was originally a graphic novel by Alan Moore, released in the 1980s as a response to Thatcherism in Britain, designed to be a warning of the threat of fascism if radical right-wing ideology goes unchecked, telling the story of the anonymous anarchist “V,” who wears a mask bearing the likeness of Guy Fawkes to embark on a campaign of terrorism against the elites.
The Wachowskis, still basking in the massive success of The Matrix, grabbed the rights to adapt the story for the screen, and it’s a good thing it was them, with all their immense talent as well as influence: fresh from the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent stifling of pro-peace voices, and right in the midst of the “War on Terror” and the rise of the surveillance state in both the U.S. and the U.K., I was sat in a cinema in 2005 when I first saw a trailer for the upcoming film and my jaw dropped. Its subject matter seemed positively incendiary at the time.
As is often the case with the often-brilliant but always-eccentric Alan Moore, he wanted nothing to do with the big-screen adaptation of his material, despite the Wachowskis and their director of choice, James McTeigue, paying respect to the source material while importantly revising it for a different medium and a different era.
I cannot stress enough how brave it was for the Wachowskis to present to mainstream movie audiences a terrorist as the central protagonist, V. Nonetheless, throughout the film and its marketing (“Freedom! Forever!”), they constantly ask us to consider if one person’s terrorist can be another person’s freedom fighter – and history has shown us that this can be the case, time and time again: Nelson Mandela was considered a “terrorist” by Thatcherites who at the same time supported General Augusto Pinochet’s military aggression and overthrow of a democratically-elected socialist government in Chile, beginning on September 11th, 1973, and leading to the murder of at least 3,000 people.
V For Vendetta presents a vision of the near future in Britain, where the threat of terrorism has allowed into power radically right-wing elements of the Conservative Party to introduce greater erosion of civil liberties, imposing curfews and sweeping surveillance of the population, suppressing protest and targeting immigrants, Muslims, and members of the LGBT community, all while waging wars overseas. Prominent members of the elite are shown to particularly benefit from this regime’s approach and are, as a result, targeted by V, who was incarcerated in one of their detention centres, tortured, and, in an experiment gone wrong, disfigured yet imbued with heightened abilities before escaping the camp. Having gone into hiding, V plotted out his vendetta and a quest to overthrow the brutal regime in control in Britain, concealing his features under a Guy Fawkes mask. On one of his missions, he meets Evey Hammond, and the two become irrevocably linked.
In 2005, V For Vendetta provided hope for anti-war activists and progressive people everywhere that there was still media that vented their fears, their hopes, as well as their dreams of a better world – while identifying and highlighting the threats at large.
Ironically, one of the members of the film crew was one Euan Blair, the son of British Prime Minister Tony Blair – who massively contributed to a culture of anti-immigration sentiment, with profit-making prisons used to detain people indefinitely, obsessions with border controls and ID cards, and a massive surveillance state with more CCTV cameras than anywhere else in the world at the time.
Ahead of its time in many ways, V For Vendetta addressed the control of media and the business influences behind that, in addition to pharmaceutical companies and corporations generally profiteering from war and terror (and, yes, the “War on Terror”). It showed how scapegoats are used to allow these interests to get away with their actions – whether this be ethnic minorities, or anyone else not fitting the white, conservative, nuclear family: in a scene that invariably reduces me to tears on every single viewing, the character of Valerie Page, a lesbian, points out that different became dangerous.
Valerie’s acting background and letters to V while incarcerated inspire him to use theatrics and illusion on his crusade. Evey tells him, “Artists use lies to tell the truth; politicians use lies to cover the truth up.” This is just as true with this very fictional film – the meanings and messages of V For Vendetta are what truly make it. And they are delivered so expertly by the filmmakers and the actors themselves.
Hugo Weaving acts under the mask throughout the whole film, yet we sense his emotions through the subtleties of his performance. In the graphic novel, artist David Lloyd actually changed the appearance of the Guy Fawkes mask for certain parts of the story, but the filmmakers did not have this luxury, only able to rely on lighting and camera angles – which speaks volumes of the acting as well, since the mask never once changed in appearance, even when it feels like it does.
Natalie Portman actually adopts an effective English accent for the character of Evey, complete with glottal stops, and adapts her performance bit by bit as Evey goes from dis-empowered media minion to empowered young woman who ultimately decides to complete V’s mission for him – because, he says, the decision on the future is not his, but that of the people who inherit the brave new world as a result of that upheaval. It’s a message about choices, decisions, and democracy that Tony Blair’s Labour had to understand too late, learning a lesson the hard way when its mass membership themselves chose Jeremy Corbyn as leader of their party and pushed for even greater democracy with him chosen to represent them. It also reflected the rising discontent among a young population that, later, resented the rise of UKIP, Brexit, and Donald Trump.
Evey’s evolution begins after V utilises the power of illusion to force her into making a crucial decision herself: after being subjected to torture techniques, and faced with demands to surrender information about V and his vendetta, Evey realises that Valerie’s message to V – and delivered to Evey as it had been delivered to him – was true: integrity is all we have; it might be just an inch of us, but it is worth more than our flesh and blood and bones and even life itself. Sure enough, Evey decides she’d rather die than give up her integrity, and is at that moment liberated. After realising it was all just a trick by V, he guides her to the rooftop so she can have more air, and, her head now shaved, is essentially born again, baptised; “God is in the rain,” she remembers being suggested by Valerie.
Interestingly, V’s own post-torture liberation was by fire, not water, after being held in room five, symbolised by the Roman numeral “V.” This is typical of the consistent and clever symbolism throughout the movie, with inspired aesthetics: Smears of blood on walls form a “V”; V himself brandishes his knives in a “V;” the hands on Big Ben form a “V.” But the filmmakers don’t stop there: Many musical themes in the film’s score form the letter “V” when the notes are connected dot to dot. The name Evey is pronounced E-V, with E being the fifth letter of the alphabet, V being five in Latin, and Y being the twenty-fifth letter (5 squared). When V first meets Evey, his speech is full of meaning and clever references – and the total number of uses of the letter “v” in that monologue is…you guessed it, fifty-five. On the mirror that Evey cleans are revealed five words: “Vi Veri Vniversum Vivus Vici” (“By the power of truth, I, while living, have conquered the universe”). I could go on and on about the layers of depth and meaning in the story, its script, and in each scene, but there are already many articles available about this.
The other performances are either ingeniously cast and/or performed: Stephen Fry is a gay man in the closet also trying to utilise art and humour to satirise the powers-that-be; Irish Stephen Rea is Inspector Finch, whose parents were Irish and whose investigations lead him to a journey of self-discovery; John Hurt, who played Winston Smith in the film adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, is cast with superb irony as the “Big Brother” and central antagonist of the film, High Chancellor Adam Sutler.
But the story even exposes greed and power for what they are: party leader Peter Creedy, looking to seize Sutler’s position for himself, has his own dark desires exploited and used against him in the film’s finale that features one of the greatest action sequences ever seen on film, partly for the reason that – at a time when cuts were frantic and action seemed about fast pacing over everything else, with often no rhyme or reason or purpose to the violence – McTeigue uses slow motion to demonstrate just how it is possible for V to kill his adversaries before they have time to reload the guns, which is crucial.
“Beneath this mask there is an idea, and ideas are bulletproof,” V tells “Creepy” Creedy before finishing him off.
And that’s the main message of the film.
In addition, the mask is a symbol itself: when the people arrive at the Houses of Parliament at the end, yes, they each wear the mask to represent their togetherness…but they then all remove them upon reaching their destination, showing that despite their unity, they are also individual people – unique, important, valuable. Even those who have died in the film’s story are symbolically represented in this scene, which is literal and easy to spot if you look for it.
However, V still kills people. He considers this a necessary evil to end the cruel regime, claiming “Violence can be used for good,” yet by the end admits he is a monster. But the monster was created by the “monstrous” things that the oppressors did to him, and that supports his belief that “Every action creates an equal and opposing reaction.” And of course, all of these contradictions present discussions and debates for the audience, without telling us what to conclude.
Ultimately, V For Vendetta gives us a happy ending, “as only celluloid can deliver,” according to V himself. And in the end, the mask used in V For Vendetta ended up being adopted by Anonymous, and Occupy protesters, who Alan Moore embraced on the street, saying it made him proud. But whatever he thinks about the movie adaptation of his graphic novel, it was V For Vendetta, the film, that popularised that mask that we see in so many places today. The social and cultural impact, then, of V For Vendetta, the motion picture, has been significant. The mass audience it reached was essentially only possible by its medium, and in turn revitalised interest in its source material written by Alan Moore, boosting sales of the book and highlighting his work in general.
So yes, V For Vendetta is about ideas. It’s about integrity. And it does what it can, in the constraints of a two-hour Hollywood movie, to popularise some incredible concepts at a time when few dared to tackle them at all.
V tells Evey that “a revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having.” He’s paraphrasing anarcho-feminist Emma Goldman as he stands in his “shadow gallery,” an underground hideout with collections of music and art reclaimed from a government drunk on power, and control, and censorship, having banned so much art that, in its very own abstract nature, questions the world we live in and opens it up to interpretations and even, yes, differences of opinion, like this very film itself. When V and Evey dance together, it isn’t just about them; it’s a symbolic rebellion, and a celebration of that art; that creativity and freedom.
Aleida Guevara, daughter of another infamous freedom fighter, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, said that to be a true revolutionary, you have to be a romantic. And this story is a romance: it avoids the clichés around “man-falls-for-woman, woman-falls-for-man,” and so on, and instead makes it a tale about something bigger than that, and much more romantic: ideals, and ideas for a better world. V represents us all, Evey points out in the closing scene, and her love for him represents her love for her father, her mother, her brother, her sister, her friends, people she didn’t know, people marching in the street in masks, and, yes, Valerie, too. It transcends gender and sexuality and smashes through the compartmentalisations and dehumanisations presented by the oppressive antagonists in this film, and in our world today, and reminds us of our humanity, and how another, better world is possible.
I think that’s what Aleida Guevara meant when she said that. And I think that’s what this film reflects: true romanticism. It’s revolutionary.
So, enjoy the romantic beauty of V For Vendetta. I have – and will – again and again.