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April 05, 2006

The Terrorist as Hero: V for Vendetta - James McTeigue

Posted by Christopher Peachment

V for Vendetta
Directed by James McTeigue
certificate 15, 2005

In the normal run of events, I would not have bothered to see V for Vendetta, partly because of the critical pasting that it got. But I have a small professional interest, in that I am writing a film script which has something to do with anarchy and bomb plots. Further than that I am not allowed to say, because producers in Hollywood are paranoid and are convinced that everyone will steal your ideas. This happens to be true and their paranoia is well founded.

I also have a soft spot for men in masks, beginning with Dumas's Edmund Dantes, mainly because he had a girlfriend called Mercedes, and ending with Spiderman, because he could achieve flights of pure poetry. And I mean his flights, not his talk.

I have never been able to explain to foreigners why the British enjoy an annual celebration of a man who was once a terrorist, and, had he succeeded, would have achieved far more mayhem than the comparatively minor efforts of those who flew into the Trade Towers or blew up our tube trains. I put it down to our national streak of anarchism. Whatever your stance on terrorism, you have to admit that killing every single member of Parliament along with the King and his heirs, would get rid of government, however temporarily. It would certainly convince people of your religious fervour. I won't take this any further, as I don't want MI5 taking a sudden interest in me.

No doubt the reader is now expecting a rant against the critics and an avowal that V for Vendetta is an undiscovered masterpiece.

Alas, it is not. But it does contain pleasures impressive enough to make you give in, if your wailing brat is demanding a ticket in expectation of watching something as good as The Matrix (from the Wachowski brothers, who also wrote this film).

It is set in a future police state, familiar from Orwell's 1984. Indeed the Big Brother figure here, as played by John Hurt who was Winston in Mike Radford's film of 1984, is seen almost wholly from a huge screen. (This doesn't flatter his teeth. Hurt may have given up drinking, but his lower teeth make him look like a 50 a day man.)

He insists that his subjects must be kept in a state of fear. And that they must also be constantly reminded that he is the only thing that stands between them and their being turned into spaghetti by a Claymore mine. This sounds familiar.

His functionaries, all sweating heavily in front of the screen, are a good line up of the usual suspects from the UK's quality thesps, with Tim Piggott-Smith doing his trademark nasty, and Stephen Rea doing his trademark hangdog. Roger Allam is also in there as the right wing tabloid press ranter. He's doing his Richard Littlejohn.

This future police state is challenged only by a masked man simply calling himself "V". The reason for V's disaffection and his recruitment of the waif girl Natalie Portman - battling gamely with not much to do, and only a man in a mask to do it up against (he's not big on reaction) - lies in his having been imprisoned in a concentration camp for dissidents at Larkhill on Salisbury plain. It was here that a wicked female scientist experimented on the inmates with a deadly virus, which would knock out the enemy while leaving all his assets intact. There is a sure echo here of that wicked Iraqi female scientist whose name I cannot spell, but who was variously known as Dr Germ, Mrs Anthrax or Chemical Sally.

In an early demonstration to Natalie Portman of his liking for big explosions followed by pretty fireworks, V blows up the Old Bailey to the strains of the cannonade from the 1812 overture. That is impressive. But it's not a patch on the finale (look away now if you think you might want to see the film) when he achieves what the original Guy only dreamed of. That explosion is truly impressive.

What is most impressive of all about the whole enterprise is that this hero is an unabashed terrorist. I suppose that the fact that it is set in the UK will distance this from some of the US audience. Indeed, I doubt very much whether many of them know who Guy Fawkes was. But the concentration camp will look worryingly familiar to them, and V even uses the "rendition" word at one point. The most extraordinary fact about all this is that the film was funded by a major Hollywood studio.

I mentioned above that I have been engaged in a project which I am not supposed to say anything about. But one argument that crops up time and again from the money men in Hollywood is that we mustn't do anything to suggest that the hero is a terrorist. They all say:

This won't play with Middle America. He is a brave freedom fighter or he is nothing. Misguided maybe, but, hell, we were all young once, and we all did silly things.
So Warner Brothers sanctioning a film which preaches anarchy in the UK looks like an insanely brave move, and not easily understandable.

I suppose if I were a better journalist, I would go away and look at the "graphic novel" by Alan Moore from which all this was taken. But I haven't looked at a comic since I was a child and I don't intend to start now. My response to adults who read children's literature "because it's as good as the real thing", verges on the violent. (There was a judge on the Booker prize panel who once put this to me in all seriousness. This explains a lot about Booker winners lately.)

Although I notice from the internet that Alan Moore didn't just demand that his name be taken off the credits. All writers do that. He also demanded that his fees be distributed among various other people on the project. No writers do that. That is impressive.

There are many other incidental pleasures in the film, not least a vision of London's population, all kitted out in Guy Fawkes masks and cloaks, swarming over night-time Trafalgar Square, and overrunning the massed ranks of soldiers guarding Parliament. How did they do that?, is a question that immediately occurs to the viewer. At three in the morning, with a stiff bribe to the Met, I imagine. Still, that too is impressive. And I always enjoy it when the hero of an American film walks across Piccadilly and arrives the next minute in Canary Wharf. It adds a surreal dimension to this grey city.

Finally, there was a touch which won my heart around. Over the end credits, the soundtrack belts out the Rolling Stones Street Fighting Man. It's not my favourite song in the whole world, and this isn't my favourite film, but any director who is prepared to spend what was probably a third of his budget getting the rights to that song, and then squander it on the final credits, gets my vote. It's like a big thank you for having sat through two hours in the dark of OK cheap thrills.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.

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Got here via google. I'd just like to point out that while V for Vendetta was not my favorite Moore comic (that would probably be Watchmen), it is by no stretch of imagination children's literature. Just a minor point.

Posted by: g at April 6, 2006 06:39 AM

I loved the film on many levels. I too am working on a screenplay, though not about bombs and anarchy, at least, not the traditional kind of bombs and anarchy, but I digress.

I LOVED the film. I actually thought it was better than The Matrix, and I saw the Matrix several times before buying the DVD and seeing it several more, if that tells you anything. Hop by my blog to see what I wrote. I also gave some of the background on the original gunpowder plot from which V drew his inspiration. Surprisingly relevant to our times....

Posted by: Real History Lisa at April 6, 2006 05:36 PM

>the British enjoy an annual celebration of a man who was once a terrorist

Ummm, Guy Fawkes day is a celebration of the defeat of the Gunpowder Plot, NOT of Guy Fawkes himself.

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I can think of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

Posted by: anon at November 6, 2008 02:27 AM
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