'Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot...'
In 1605, Guy Fawkes and several others- including Robert Catesby and Thomas Winter- plotted to kill King James I by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. They failed. Fawkes was captured and tortured but jumped from the scaffold before he was hung. So every November 5 here in the UK, we commemorate the failure of Fawkes' attempt at regicide by burning his effigy on a bonfire and setting off fireworks. It's an odd kind of celebration; we commemorate something that didn't happen, rather than something that did. Now, Fawkes is representative of a revolutionary anti-establishment movement.
Fitting then, that Alan Moore decided to use a Guy Fawkes mask for his hero V to wear in his comic-book series V For Vendetta (first published 1982-1985). In the comic book, V is a lone anarchist who seeks to bring down the totalitarian government of Britain using theatrical acts of destruction. Unsurprisingly, a film adaptation of the comic book was released in 2006, directed by James McTeigue.
Britain is ruled by the fascist Norsefire party, under the tyrannical High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). One night, a young woman named Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) is saved from an attack by the secret police by a masked vigilante named V (Hugo Weaving). V has an agenda: to topple the government. He destroys the Old Bailey and then, in an exhilarating speech, hacks into the emergency system to deliver a stark message to the people:
Performance-wise, the film is top-notch. Portman, gaining top billing, is great as Evey: her British accent very seldom slips and she captures the conflict within the character very well. It's difficult to gauge Weaving's performance as he is almost always masked but he imbues the character with a vocal intensity which is superb. The role should have been played by James Purefoy who dropped out of the project after finding it difficult performing behind the mask. Hurt gives a steely performance as High Chancellor Sutler, who- even when the character rants- steers clear of an easy performance as a tinpot dictator.
Stephen Rea and Rupert Graves make for an excellent pairing as police officers Eric Finch and Dominic Stone who investigate V's acts of terrorism (as Sutler calls them) but find their loyalties stretched when Norsefire's previous actions come to haunt them. Stephen Fry gives a lovely turn as Gordon Deitrich, a talk-show host whose interest in Evey is merely a front to hide his true desires; homosexuality is not tolerated in Norsefire's world. Which leads me on to a powerful performance by Natasha Wightman as Valerie, a relatively minor but important role as a young woman imprisoned by Norsefire for being a lesbian.
The action set-pieces are directed with breathless skill by McTeigue (who cut his teeth on The Matrix trilogy); the early destruction of the Old Bailey is a pyrotechnical feast, especially, and- whilst the metaphor is slightly overplayed- the sequence with the dominos also looks fantastic. There's a pervading sense of dread that hangs over the film which is impressive; this futuristic dystopia seems all too easy to imagine coming to pass.
The film is an excellent thriller and a damn fine adaptation of a seminal comic book, but it also has a more lasting legacy; the Guy Fawkes mask as portrayed in the film is now used as a symbol by hacker group Anonymous and has also been used by protesters during the Occupy protests and other political protests in the UK. Quite apt as one of V's bon mots is: 'People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people'.