A dystopian future is difficult to bring off on film, except as a broader metaphor. Attempts to equate the setting of such a film with current events usually come off as shrill and preachy. V for Vendetta succeeds largely on style points since its politics are ultimately obvious and shallow.
Vendetta commits the obvious sin of leaning heavily on its Nazi symbology. Orwell had the advatage that using obvious parallels to Nazis would still have been in extremely poor taste in 1948, so he was forced to rely more on his imagination when writing 1984. Since then, with the luxury of passing time, authors and filmmakers has come to lean more and more heavily on Nazi parallels, until the swastika has become increasingly cheapened as a symbol of totalitarianism.
The real problem with Vendetta is that it never decides whose story it’s attempting to tell: is it about V (mostly Hugo Weaving), Evey (Natalie Portman) or the larger story of a conspiracy to be uncovered by Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea)? I’m not saying that the other elements needed to be excluded, but none of the plot threads steps to the fore as the main thrust of the picture, leaving it feeling rudderless.
As a protagonist, V is a cypher, a combination of his mask with a collection of classical references. The film never successfully conveys the source of his rage against the state. The reason for it is explained in some detail but it fails to connect on any emotional level. The moral ambiguity inherent in the terrorist-as-hero is lost because V is never a person, just an image.
Evey is the character with the emotional arc in this film, from the relatively naive production assistant to a committed rebel, but her journey is a mostly passive one, in response to things done to her rather than the consequences of her own actions. Natalie Portman’s performance is finely tuned and emotionally true, even if her English accent tends to disappear during her more emotional scenes.
But the largest failure of Vendetta is that its portrayal of a futuristic Britain under a police state lacks the depth and credibility to make it seem real or genuinely dangerous. Not only is the story told rather clumsily through excessive exposition, but the two key figures who are supposed to represent the threat of this regime, John Hurt as Adam Sutler and Tim Pigott-Smith as Creedy, are mostly empty shirts who don’t register as characters either. The too-obvious parallels with current events along with the Nazi allusions give the movie the tone of a sophomoric campus protest rather than any kind of mature political statement.
Being a fan of most of the persons involved and an admirer of the film’s look and technical prowess, I was quite disappointed by its failure to draw me into its story and involve me in its characters’ plight. V for Vendetta is definitely a missed opportunity.