By Nick Maylor
My mother grew up in England and in the 1960s, Halloween wasn’t really a thing. However, less than a week after October 31st would be Guy Fawkes night. For the week leading up to November 5th, kids would go door-to-door, collecting firewood and other sundry items that would be set ablaze on Guy Fawkes night in a big bonfire. Effigies of Fawkes would be made of straw and they too were thrown into the flames. Jacket potatoes would be cooked and eaten. My mother never remembers the discussion about Guy Fawkes the man, and she didn’t realize he was a historical figure until many years later.
Guy Fawkes was an English Catholic who was involved in a failed attempt to blow out the Houses of Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
Ironically, unlike the man who wears his image in the film, Guy Fawkes wasn’t trying to overthrow a fascist theocracy, he was trying to install one.
The Guy Fawkes mask used in this film (based on Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name) has become widely recognized for a variety of reasons that go beyond the film and its narrative. The hacktivist group Anonymous has adopted the mask in their videos and campaigns (reminiscent of V’s video speech to the nation in the film) and the image of the Guy Fawkes mask has become synonymous with protest, unrest, anarchy and a slew of other ideas folks have projected onto it.
Alan Moore’s graphic novel was primarily about anarchy, while the film version made significant changes to the story; making it a commentary on fascism and the perils of government overreach. Released in the years after the Iraq War and at the height of the George W. Bush administration, V for Vendetta was written by American screenwriters the Wachowskis, and directed by Australian filmmaker, James McTeague.
The film adaptation was denounced by Alan Moore who requested his name be removed entirely from the credits. He did this again with Watchmen (2009), and this has become his personal policy regarding films based on his work.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is the exceptional work done by the cast. Natalie Portman is brilliant as per usual and commits to the role far beyond shaving her head (which appears in the film). Hugo Weaving performs almost entirely behind a mask and his real face is never seen. In the graphic novel, artist David Lloyd incorporated subtitle changes to V’s mask throughout for emotions. Creating several, slightly different masks for the film was considered, and ultimately rejected, leaving Weaving with a completely blank slate to perform behind. Restricted to having to act without one’s face is no easy task. It truly is remarkable how much life he breathes into the titular terrorist/freedom fighter known only as “V”. His introduction is fondly remembered because of his brilliant vocal performance and the insane number of words used that start with the letter “v”.
He also appears unmasked in one scene disguised as “William Rockwood”. Adopting a regional British dialect, he delivers some sweet, sweet exposition. Although most of his face is still covered, he still delivers the goods via his voice and a few slight facial movements.
John Hurt appears in the film as High Chancellor Adam Sutler: a mix between Adolf Hitler and “Big Brother” from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). He appears on screens throughout the nation and is the face of it; instilling fear to the masses via his widespread communications and propaganda network. Hurt is simply epic in the movie.
One of his “minions” is state-run television host Lewis Prothero. Picture Bill O’Reilly with the rage of Alex Jones and the wit and oratory skills of Christopher Hitchens. Allam also played the sneering villain the Wachowskis amazingly fun and terrible Speed Racer (2008). Watching this actor chew on the scenery is one of the most entertaining things I’ve ever experienced. He revels in it.
Stephen Fry oozes with charm as talk show host Gordon Deitrich; a closeted talk-show host who entertains young women as a facade for the public. Fry essentially plays into all of his natural strengths in the role but is endlessly watchable; especially when he decides to poke fun at the establishment.
I heart-breaking look into the Larkhill Detention Center (where V was previously institutionalized) comes via a note Evey finds in her cell. It tells the story of Valerie Page (Natasha Wightman) discovering her sexuality, coming out to her parents, falling in love and building a life; only to have it taken away by the authorities as both Valerie and her lover are captured and imprisoned. The story is written and narrated by Valarie as a last testament to the world as she awaits her inevitable death in her cell.
The film plays its idea to a climactic finish with lots of explosions and fireworks. V isn’t the type of person to dismiss using style and substance. There is also plenty of action and violence sprinkled throughout the film; V has no qualms about executing anyone who gets in his way. Don’t get too attached to most of the characters though. A revolution without a death-count is a revolution not worth having (to paraphrase our masked protagonist).
There is a lot to enjoy beneath the mask. The idea is satisfying enough on its own.
A film to remember. A film worth revisiting.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick is the host/producer of the official Foote & Friends On Film podcast. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor