Alan Moore started writing 'V For Vendetta' in the summer of 1981 during a holiday on the Isle Of Wight. Seven years later, in the winter of 1988, Moore and artist David Lloyd finally completed the graphic novel. They had set out to create a uniquely British comic book, drawing in their political pessimism toward the rise of Margaret Thatcher, literary influences such as George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, as well as more impressionistic pop culture, David Bowie, Judge Dredd and "the atmosphere of British Second World War films". It was the artist's idea to throw Guy Fawkes into the mix, suggesting the Catholic plotter should be celebrated for attempting to blow up the Houses Of Parliament.
Alan Moore wrote against a 1980s backdrop of riots, AIDS, Clause 28, and The Bomb. In updating 'V For Vendetta' for the 21st Century, the Wachowski brothers and director James McTeigue prod us with references to the War On Terror, the orange jumpsuits of Camp X-Ray, the hooded prisoners of Abu Ghraib and clips of news channels stoking up fear of bird flu, the patina of panic nation sprayed upon a sci-fi action movie that, at times, clunks around with its trousers full of spanners.
Is V For Vendetta revolutionary? Is it, as Mark Kermode noted in 'The Observer', deserving of a charge for sedition? "Violence can be used for good... for justice," insists V (Hugo Weaving), the masked and caped terrorist hero, operating way outside the usual platitudes. Martin Luther King and Gandhi are off the agenda. After rescuing Evey (Natalie Portman) from some nastiness involving a gang of Fingermen - the SS of this future state, with grimy macs instead of Nazi regalia - V takes her into his secret lair, a shadow gallery, where he keeps all the culture forbidden by the far right government led by Adam Sutler (Hurt).
The Shadow Gallery is just one of numerous aspects faithfully adapted from Moore and Lloyd's original comic. The set is dressed with the same Wurlitzer juke box, the same pre-Raphaelite paintings as the comic. A stunning opening sequence where V conducts the destruction of the Old Bailey, then storms the media centre of BTV are two action sequences storyboarded in the original, albeit appearing out of order.
Also true to the comic, we never see the face beneath V's grinning Guy Fawkes mask. Unfortunately, the early expository scenes struggle under this constraint. Perhaps monologues from a masked man will never work on the screen - certainly, Portman's stilted responses are unhelpful, a return to her Queen Amidala enunciation from the Star Wars prequels.
Appalled by V's unapologetic terrorism, Evey escapes into the arms of Gordon, a powerful and famous TV presenter played by Stephen Fry (one wonders if Fry was ghostwriter on a few of V's fruitier speeches; at the end of one particularly verbose monologue, I expected the terrorist to hand out BAFTAs). In a senseless sequence, Gordon confesses to Evey his dark secret. He is gay. Worse, he keeps a shadow gallery of his own, containing a forbidden copy of the Koran. He has a lot to hide. So it's a shock when, in the next scene, he is hosting a broad satire against the fascists, backed by the Benny Hill theme tune. They haul him away. It is not so much a bum note as an entire piano of them tossed from a high window.
The Wachowskis deserve credit for their ingenious backstory to this adaptation. In the original, it was an atomic war abroad that facilitated the rise of the fascists. Here it is an act of biological terrorism that may also be a corporate coup d'etat, a nudge and a wink at the military-oil axis that ascended to power in America behind President Bush. Although, in this near-future, America is written off as basically a "giant leper colony", it is very much the target of this film; essentially America is attacked through the oblique strategy of disguising the Bush regime as a British one. This makes V For Vendetta a troubling, if deliciously irresponsible experience for a UK audience - the sensibilities of the British establishment are laid into without a second thought, committing the kind of heresies that, 20 years ago, would have had MI5 ransacking the edit suite.
Climaxing with a London Underground train packed full of homemade explosive, a mere six months after the terrorist attacks of 7/7, it makes you wonder why Hollywood considers British sensibilities so robust. Or do they just not care? How long will we wait for a sci-fi film that ends with the terrorist heroes flying a 747 into the Pentagon? One suspects the forthcoming 9/11 movies like Flight 93 and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center may hold off the anarchist grandstanding. After the rousing revolutionary climax of V For Vendetta, a powerful piece of action movie filmmaking with all manner of rebellious badges pinned to its lapel, one is struck with two shocking thoughts; one, Guy Fawkes DID have a point and two, Britain is such a meaningless speck of a country that a major Hollywood action movie can blow up its symbols of power and expect the audience to join in the cheers. If there is a sequel, expect V to take the Queen from behind while shooting the Royal Family in alphabetical order.