Bill James reviews the newly-released film, V for Vendetta.
As an adolescent back in the 1960s, I was impressed by an anarchist poster which carried the slogan, “Vote for Guy Fawkes, the only man to enter parliament with honest intentions.”
This film picks up on the same idea – that Guy Fawkes was some sort of proto-libertarian. Historically, this is nonsense. The government of James I which Guy Fawkes tried to blow up was certainly repressive enough by today’s standards, but would have been replaced by something even further from our liberal democratic ideals had Fawkes and his co-conspirators been successful.
In 1605 the possibility of toleration and pluralism was a struggling and inchoate theory, held by a tiny handful of visionaries, and Guy Fawkes was not one of them. This has not stopped the makers of V for Vendetta from generating a Zorro-like freedom fighter who wears a Guy Fawkes mask and eventually succeeds in blowing up Westminster.
The opening scenes, which give a realistic portrayal of Fawkes’ arrest and execution, are very necessary in view of today’s widespread historical illiteracy. (I recently spoke to a friend in his twenties who had never heard of Guy Fawkes Night). Oddly enough, in view of the violence later depicted on the screen, Fawkes is only hanged – not drawn and quartered.
Big Brother figure
Next we are introduced to a dystopian London of curfews and secret police, set around 2020. It is ruled by a Big Brother figure, a Christian from the Conservative Party, projected throughout the city on giant television screens where he rants against doubt and godlessness. Walls carry posters urging faith and unity.
The ambience, indoors and outside, is gloomy, bare and functional, an atmosphere which is reinforced by the comic-book colour scheme of blacks, blues and greys.
Enter another comic-book element, the super-hero known only as V. In his Guy Fawkes mask, wig, hat and cloak, he roams the city wreaking mayhem at will.
Police surveillance is powerless to curb his movements, and police firearms are useless against his swords and daggers.
He hides out in a mediaeval crypt of warm, golden brown stonework, surrounded by beautiful objets d’art he has rescued from the dictatorship’s puritanical iconoclasm.
Into this world of freedom and beauty he brings the heroine, played by Natalie Portman (the world’s most attractive actress, with whom I am hopelessly and dementedly infatuated). He has rescued her from government thugs and, in an extended sequence of incarceration and abuse, he ruthlessly deprograms her from her fear of the regime.
The film ends with her sending off his body through the Underground on a train packed with explosives, like a Viking chieftain being launched on the voyage to Valhalla in a flaming longship.
The train blows up the Houses of Parliament at the same time as the population of London converges on Trafalgar Square to overwhelm the ranks of militia goons.
V for Vendetta constitutes a comprehensive, if inadvertent, exposure of the contemporary leftist mentality.
According to this mindset, political oppression is the product of manipulation of the false consciousness of the masses, whose conservatism and religion make them vulnerable as fascism fodder. The fact that the worst and most murderous tyrannies of the last 100 years have been, and continue to be, radical and atheist (the two adjectives apply to Nazism as well as communism) is simply ignored, or dismissed as McCarthyism.
The dictatorship’s demand for blind, unquestioning faith in the leader is irresistibly reminiscent of Mao’s China, Stalin’s USSR and Pol Pot’s Kampuchea. So are the harsh, utilitarian architecture, and hatred of art, beauty and scholarship.
There is nary a glimpse of hammer and sickle in the film, however – only a juxtaposition of the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack with a swastika. One of the most fundamental dogmas of the left is the belief that authoritarian predilections are worse in the English-speaking democracies than in any other form of government.
The book on which the film is based was written in the 1980s during Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership. The fact that she actively opposed actual oppression, such as that of fascist Argentina and the communist, pre-Gorbachev USSR, was not allowed to stand in the way of paranoid fantasies that she was paving the way for a British Reich.
(The same intellectual insouciance was exhibited in Australia by baby-boomer supporters of Mao and Hoxha, who condemned as fascist not only parents and teachers, but RSL members who had actually put their bodies on the line in the battle against Nazism).
The film’s references have been updated to cater for the rise in anti-American bigotry since the ’80s. A prison warder talks with an American accent. There are mentions of “rendition” and “collateral damage”. “Terrorism” and “Islamic extremism” are treated as risible bogeys conjured out of thin air by the Administration to rationalise repressive legislation.
In a similar vein, there is a heavy-handed tribute to conspiracy theories about 9/11, in the depiction of a government plot to kill hundreds of children by releasing deadly toxins into a school. The atrocity is blamed on “terrorists” and used to justify mass arrests.
In fact, when it comes to fashionable causes, scarcely a box remains unticked. There is a lesbian affair which symbolises the defiance of death and hatred by life and love.
The ubiquitous Stephen Fry, a television host this time, is used to make the point that dictators loathe the subversive power of humour. This is true, of course, but it is true of all power junkies, including those on the left.
Amnesty International reports that dissidents are jailed in Cuba for the crime of “disrespect” toward Fidel Castro, avuncular icon of our suburban guerrillas in their Che Guevara t-shirts. If the film’s makers really want to posture as fearless opponents of despotism, they should try taking the mickey out of Kim Jong-il in a production shot on location in Pyongyang! The very fact that they were free to make V for Vendetta in the West constitutes in itself a refutation of its hysterical paranoia.
The claims of inaccuracy and inconsistency which I have made so far could no doubt easily be dismissed by defenders of the film as the pedantic nitpicking of an old codger mired in stale and tedious modernity, who can’t cope with postmodern playfulness and comic-book hyperbole.
The problem with that defence is that the film itself engages in straight didacticism when it feels like it. Some of the speeches in support of objective truth and free speech could have been lifted straight out of Orwell. In this respect the film reflects our confused contemporary culture, in which people jump between truth and morality on the one hand, and subjectivity and relativism on the other, as it suits them.
A consistent postmodernism is both terminologically inconsistent and practically impossible. As Dr Samuel Johnson said, “Even the devils do not lie to one another, since the society of hell could not subsist without truth any more than others.”
The dénouement is thoroughly self-indulgent, and also propagates a misleading political principle. Paradoxically, for a film which ostensibly deplores violence, the climax begins with a battle between “V” and a group of policemen, who all perish bloodily as a result of his creative employment of a variety of sharp blades.
Then there is a Gotterdammerung with a difference, because as the Parliament buildings disintegrate in climactic cataclysm, the tsunami of Londoners drowning the security forces evokes the promise of political salvation emerging from the destruction.
This is the apotheosis of People Power; mob violence heralds the dawn of freedom. We wish.
Street demonstrations, whether spontaneous or orchestrated, have brought down governments from Thailand and the Philippines to Ukraine and Georgia. Whether permanent stable democracy and the rule of law will emerge from such theatrics is another question.
The credits roll to the sound of the Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man, anthem of Soixante-Huitard wannabes who are no doubt excitedly monitoring the current anarchy in Paris. I don’t think the song was intended as irony.
- Reviewed by Bill James