By all rights, this should be the worst time imaginable to release V For Vendetta, a film with—there's really no polite word for it—a terrorist hero prone to saying things like "Violence can be used for good," and "Sometimes blowing up a building can change the world." So why does V For Vendetta play as such a crowd-pleaser? The answer is simple and unsettling. Set in a totalitarian future-Britain that pairs the dystopian state of George Orwell's 1984 with the brutality of Nazi Germany, it makes heroes out of the treasonous by calling up our repulsion for historical fascist atrocities, but also by relying on us to recognize how fascism can inch into everyday life in the name of security. It's a preemptive strike for resistance, and a reminder that freedom demands protection.
Hugo Weaving plays liberty's self-appointed guardian, a man in a Guy Fawkes mask who calls himself "V" and lives in a bunker filled with forbidden art, from Hans Holbein to Cat Power. Taking his mission public, he blows up the Old Bailey shortly after rescuing Natalie Portman—an office drone working for Britain's single TV network—from a gang of sexually aggressive policemen. Later, he brings her underground, making her a reluctant (at least initially) accomplice in a plot to topple the government.
Written and produced by Larry and Andy Wachowski of Matrix fame, and directed by Matrix second-unit director James McTeigue, the film reworks an '80s graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd and written by Alan Moore (uncredited here, by his own choice) as a howl of rage against where Moore felt the Thatcher administration was headed. It is, in its essence, a remarkably faithful adaptation that should have perhaps stayed even more faithful. Only when the script and visuals stray too far from the source does the film lose its way, getting bogged down in the mechanics of big-budget action filmmaking and ponderous dialogue as it works toward a way-too-tidy, sentimental finale.
The mask doesn't always help either, making it hard for Portman and Weaving to build the relationship the story requires. Weaving stepped into the role when James Purefoy stepped out (though some of Purefoy's scenes remain), and many shots suggest what undid him: It's hard to convey emotion behind a perpetual smile. And emotion does enter into it: One long monologue (taken almost directly from Moore) that's worked into a vicious sequence depicting Portman's personal awakening is simultaneously uplifting and harrowing, a call for freedom even in the face of grave consequences. V For Vendetta tries, but it never quite achieves the same tone elsewhere. Mostly, it's content to remain a compelling, visually striking political mystery with some big ideas woven into it—subversive notions about integrity, liberty, and political change. And though it stutters in getting it out, the film clearly means what it says. As weapons against oppression go, passion and sincerity can sometimes do more damage than a bomb.