Monday, April 03, 2006

Between Batman and 1984


V for Vendetta comes from the team that made The Matrix trilogy and has been getting attention in these parts with some creepy promo posters and billboards. The film is based on an underground comic that satirised Thatcher's Britain, but the Wachowski brothers' script has made the setting more abstract by projecting the story into the future and replacing the Iron Lady with a sort of 'composite' regime which seems to draw on a number of twentieth century dictatorships and semi-dictatorships. There's nothing inherently wrong with such an approach - contrary to popular opinion, Orwell's 1984 was a satire of US and British capitalism, as well as the Soviet Union's 'actually existing socialism'.

There is a lack of clarity, though, about the society and world which V for Vendetta depicts - references to ongoing wars in the Middle East, civil war in the United States, and the rise of a sort of neo-fascism in Britain intrigue the viewer, but are not fleshed out sufficiently to become credible and convincing. Instead of anatomising dystopia and its discontents, the film matches its impressionistic setting with a comic book superhero, a vanguard party of one, fighting single-handedly for truth and justice. Hell, even The Matrix's Morpheus had some helpers, didn't he?

I couldn't help feeling the movie suffered from not knowing whether it was trying to keep a pretence of realism or whether it was supposed to be a comic book romp. The juxtaposition of gritty scenes of political paranoia and repression and choreographed action hero hi-jinks jarred with me. Was I supposed to be watching Batman or 1984? The same point could be made, perhaps, about the Matrix films. There are, though, a couple of strong performances: John Hurt, who played Winston Smith in the excellent remake of 1984, makes a convincing dictator, and Stephen Fry is more than plausible as a TV star forced to hide his gay porn and his gaudy Koran behind the wine rack of his London townhouse.

Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw took V for Vendetta apart, calling it 'weird and bizarre and baffling, but in a completely boring way'. The World Net Daily's film reviewer has a rather different set of criticisms: he thinks the film is 'a vile, pro-terrorist piece of neo-Marxist, left-wing propaganda filled with radical sexual politics and nasty attacks on religion and Christianity'. Phew! Maybe I missed something?

Update: over at indymedia the SNAP collective ('twas always my favourite card game too, especially after a few too many beers) has put up a review of V for Vendetta, and commenter Matthew has corrected me:

Interesting review, Scott, though you're wrong when you state the original comic is set during Thatcher's rule. It was *written* during the Thatcher years, but set in 1997-8, which was the future then (if you see what I mean). Also I don't think it should be categorized as a dystopia, but perhaps that's nitpicking. On the other hand, I agree with you that Stephen Fry gave one of the better performances in the film. By the way, the comic is hardly an "underground" publication. You can get it at Borders here in Christchruch, and I believe they have a copy in the Welington Public Library!

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