"V for Vendetta" is not a movie of ideas so much as it is an idea mall. By the time you've gotten through it, you feel spent, loaded down and more than a little disoriented. Part of the problem is that the movie's big concepts -- violence begets violence, absolute power corrupts absolutely, everything is connected, my terrorist is your freedom fighter, etc. -- are pithy, brief and irrefutable enough to embroider on throw pillows. But its moral and philosophical stances amount to a free-for-all.
The movie begins with a historical flashback to 1605, as Guy Fawkes is shown being seized, arrested and hanged. The scene is played for maximum pathos: A suffering lady looks toward the gallows with watery eyes. No surprise then, that, some four centuries into the future, what Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) wants to know is, "But what of the man? Who was he really? What was he like?" A good question, which the movie declines to answer. Fawkes was an English soldier and Catholic dissident who conspired to kill King James I and blow up Parliament. He was caught in time, made to confess under torture and executed. On Nov. 5, Britons celebrate the thwarting of his plot by burning the guy in effigy -- another detail also conveniently left out of the film, which would rather have us think of him as a cross between Zorro and Sid Vicious.
The character Evey is talking about is not Fawkes, anyway. He's a Fawkes-masked renegade (and accomplished fencer) code-named V, who employs terrorist tactics in the name of democracy. Written by Andy and Larry Wachowski and directed by James McTeigue, the movie is based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore, who took his name off the project. Published in 1989, the comics imagined a totalitarian England of the not-too-distant future, in which a draconian Thatcherism predicated on order, conformity and intolerance has mushroomed into totalitarian repression. As the story goes, America's endless foreign war has led England into isolationism and panic, which an ambitious conservative politician has recognized and seized as a political tool, feeding public fear through deception of the most despicably murderous sort.
In the envisioning of this dystopia, Orwell is given the kind of homage that would make some people call their lawyers -- the party motto, for instance, which is plastered all over town, is "strength through unity, unity through faith." Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt, who played the oppressed and ultimately broken Winston Smith in "1984") has been swept into office by terrified Britons willing to relinquish democracy in return for protection. Soon, Sutler's henchmen are rounding up writers, artists, dissidents and gays for use in medical experiments, until someone blows up the facility -- a patient, strangely resistant to the virus they've developed, who emerges from the flames looking like a barbecued sausage and howling with righteous anger. Soon, he'll be promoting anarchy in the U.K.
So far, so promising. But rather than show us a nightmare world in which even the mildest dissent can get you thrown in a cage with a hood over your head, it repeatedly tells us, in lengthy soliloquies, that England's citizens live under constant surveillance, cowering in fear. And yet every time a newscaster lies on the air, he or she is greeted by a hearty cry of "bollocks!" Winston Smith would think he'd died and gone to Disneyland.
As for what's permitted and what's not, it's pretty hard to say. Apparently, in the future, paintings by Vermeer, busts of Nefertiti and Velvet Underground songs covered by Cat Power will be banned, but the middle classes will live in spacious, comfortably appointed apartments. Butter will be scarce, but red spray paint will be readily available to any 9-year-old girl.
With such fuzzy parameters, it's no wonder the characters behave incongruously. Despite all the lengthy speeches about living in fear, they are risk-takers, lane-changers and, frankly, fickle dates. Evey, an assistant at the British Television Network, is surprisingly sanguine and plucky for someone who as a child watched her parents dragged away in the middle of the night with bags over their heads. We first meet her as she primps for a date, the firebrand TV pundit Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam), spewing bile in the background. Like apparently everyone else in England, Evey seems somewhat blithe about the whole brutal-regime thing. She doesn't deny herself the pleasure of talking back to the TV, nor does she allow curfew to impinge on her social life. She has a date with her boss, Gordon Dietrich (Stephen Fry), a popular television personality many years her senior, and she does her best to keep it, curfew be damned.