Saw V for Vendetta last night. It was, to misuse Graham Greene’s terminology, an entertainment, more The Third Man rather than The Power and the Glory. There is, to be sure, no mistaking its power, but it is the power of a cartoon.
The New York Times was not very kind to the movie; Manohla Dargis was little more than snide. (The wonderful Janet Maslin, James Agee’s true heir in the art of discovering saving graces in even the worst movies, has unfortunately migrated to the book reviews.) Dargis asks:
Is the man in the mask who wants to make Parliament go boom Osama bin Laden or Patrick Henry? Or just a Phantom of the Opera clone who likes to kick back to the cult sounds of Antony and the Johnsons? Your guess is as good as mine, and I’ve seen the film.
I share her views about the unresolved ambiguity in V’s character, as played by Hugo Weaving; I found it disconcerting to hear the elaborately enunciated phrasing of "Agent Smith" (in the Matrix trilogy) issue from the Guy Fawkes mask V wore to hide the mutant within.
The otherwise agreeable David Denby in the New Yorker was not snide, but he didn’t find much to recommend in the movie. His lead was a cutting summary:
"V for Vendetta,” a dunderheaded pop fantasia that celebrates terrorism and destruction, is perhaps the ultimate example of how a project with modest origins becomes a media monster.
It’s true; V for Vendetta has the compelling inner logic of a comic book; that is to say, it follows the logic of images. The destruction of the Houses of Parliament in London makes for great visual, but the logistics behind it (apparently, V’s bomb-laden train and the new tracks he built over several years did not require the work of more than one man) are loopy — or at least a fantasy.
But on the whole, my own take on the movie is closer to the generally positive if still-somewhat puzzled reviews in the Boston Globe, by Ty Burr, or the Houston Chronicle, by Amy Biancolli. Burr writes:
"V for Vendetta" wants you to wonder how much of this sounds familiar, and, worse, how much of it might become familiar with a few twists of history’s tail. Then it wants you to root for the masked man who plans to blow it all up. Is he a terrorist or a freedom fighter, and what, exactly, defines the difference? The Wachowski brothers think they know. Anyone who gives thought to the matter may respond with one of their screenplay’s favorite words: Bollocks.
The set piece of violence that caps the movie is like illicit sex: Exciting while it lasts, and then you hate yourself in the morning.
Biancolli is the first (at least in the eight or so reviews I’ve read this morning, courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes) to raise the possibility that, on one level, the movie is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast.
V atomizes the Old Bailey courthouse in the movie’s opening spectacle, and he plans something similar for Parliament. He also plans to eliminate a long list of fascist nasties who had abused him in the past, a tragic back story being the key to every anti-hero. He is exquisitely, rapturously lonely — lonely in a minor key, with roses. When he rescues a woman (an impassioned Natalie Portman), she becomes his accomplice, then his prisoner, then his friend. He grows to love her in his silent, wounded way (despite torturing her later on: minor point). But still, he never removes his mask. She cannot transform this Beast.
PS. How could I have ended my post without so much as a glance at Natalie Portman? (Well, I had to rush to work.) Portman is a magnetic presence; she is the movie’s emotional core, the fragile repository of the audience’s sympathies. (I had problems with the consistency of her English accent, though.) Without her, it would have been a completely different movie.