Thursday, August 26, 2010

V for Vendetta: 4/5

There be spoilers here.

The fifth year of the new millennium was a good year for movies: three great comedies (40-Year-Old Virgin, Wedding Crashers, Fun with Dick and Jane); a great epic (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire); a great coming-of-age tale (Elizabethtown); one of my favorite movies (Match Point); and what may be the best adaptation of a comic book I've seen: V for Vendetta.

James McTeigue stepped up from the associate director's chair to direct this relatively concise telling of a sprawling tale about the last man on earth (V, played masterfully by Hugo Weaving) finding a suitable helpmate (Evey, played charmingly by Natalie Portman) with whom he can resuscitate civilization from the cultural death throes of 1984-style dystopia.  The Wachowskis wrote and produced it, so you might think it would be Matrix redux, but it's not.  It's better.

Three Up

1.  First off, this is one of the best pragmatic adaptations I've ever seen.  The Wachowskis take a long and complex story, written over the course of a decade, featuring dozens of characters---many based on contemporary (then-relevant, now-unfamiliar) personalities---and squeeze it into 127 minutes.  How do they do it?  They know what to keep and what to chuck, and what to shift into something that works better on film.  Maybe the best example: V's alliterative introduction.  It's not in the novel, but it uses one of film's defining differences from sequential art (i.e., sound) to introduce us to V's passion for the art of the moment.

2.  If I had really thought about who ought to play V, I would have a hard time coming up with someone better than Hugo Weaving.  You need someone with the flare of Johnny Depp, the menace of Al Pacino, and the ability to play from behind a mask.  Hugo Weaving---whom you may recall as Agent Smith---uses body language and subtle intonation to turn a lifeless mask into something expressive and sympathetic.  Put more simply, Weaving played V like I imagined.

3.  Like 1984, V for Vendetta has aged remarkably well.  Contemporary critics complained about the use of black hoods and words like "rendition"---they thought it smacked too loudly of political commentary and would age more quickly than organic bread. Watching the movie from half-a-decade out, however, those references slipped right past me.  I didn't think, "Wow, this movie is about Bush!"  I thought, "Wow, this movie is about how art keeps us free and censorship kills us."  It worked for 1984, and it (so far) works for V for Vendetta.

Three Down

1.  I must admit, first, that I missed some of the ambiguity surrounding the character V.  In the novel, you didn't even know V's gender.  By the end of the twelfth issue, you thought s/he might be some random concentration camp survivor, or maybe Valerie (who wrote the letter on the toilet paper), or maybe even Evey's dad/mom/brother.  I think Moore and Lloyd intentionally kept it ambiguous, and I dig it.  Obviously, with a movie, you can't do that.  We can hear V talk, so we know instinctively his or her gender.  That eliminates half the ambiguity right there, and I missed it.  (Even so, I have to admit that the Wachowskis did an excellent job making up for it.  See 1- and 2-up.)

2.  One problem I have with a lot of movies is that, when the story's over, it's over.  The war has been won and the future is secure.  The Wachowskis slipped into the same rut.  You remember: the masses converge in a (deliciously ironic) display of mass individualism and tear off their masks to reclaim their individual individualism, Big Brother dies, along with his Dragon, and a new day dawns on Mother England.  But what if . . . V dies and Evey takes on his mantle, carrying forth the battle for freedom, beauty, truth, and love; Big Brother A is dead, but Big Brother B steps up to fight the fight for safety through conformity like nothing happened, and the war rages on?  I find that ending more interesting.  (Even so, I love the irony of the mass individualism.)

3.  I'm having trouble coming up with a third down.  The Missus didn't care for it (she fell asleep, an unmistakable sign of distaste), so that means I likely won't get to watch it again for some time.  But if your complaint is that you can't watch it again as soon as you want, maybe that's really an up.

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