“OffG Recommends” is a new series we’ll be putting out intermittently commenting on books, film, television or other arts and entertainment. This November 5th OffG heartily recommends V for Vendetta. Its themes are newly relevant, and its message could not be more timely.
Unfortunately – or maybe deliberately – all most people remember of V for Vendetta is the now infamous Guy Fawkes mask. It became the symbol of Anonymous, and then it became a joke. But the film deserves more than that.
Released in 2005 – bizarrely, a time we can now look back on as much more politically aware – it is an adaptation of an Alan Moore graphic novel set in a dystopian alternative Britain.
The story centres around a masked vigilante, V, who plans to bring down the fascist government of Britain by blowing up the Houses of Parliament and inciting mass demonstrations and anarchy. I won’t go into the details of the plot, because that would defeat the purpose of recommending you watch it. Suffice to say, there is intrigue, action, philosophy, conflict and romance (in the classic sense).
It is a comic book movie, and thus bound by the conventions of the genre. There is a linear narrative. There is a love story. There is a conclusion. There is cartharsis.
These are the hallmarks of popular fiction that so rarely apply to the real world. And though they are well done and interesting, they are not what makes V for Vendetta so memorable.
The casting is brilliant, and the performances good without exception. But what makes the film great, truly great, is the writing.
It was written by someone who truly sees the way power works, and the world it builds is the most realistic dystopian vision ever put to screen. It is our world…but ever so slightly different. People look the same, dress the same, talk the same…but they are scared. All the time. And controlled. All the time.
There are curfews and censors and quarantine zones. Secret police, with limitless authority, stalk the streets and harass the public. The state broadcaster tells nothing but fanciful stories that barely resemble reality, in order to keep people calm and under control. Nobody really believes them, but nobody does anything about it either.
Every evening a former military intelligence officer appears on his nationally televised talk show to spin jingoistic propaganda about the state of the nation. Other television, music and art is all subject to government screening before appearing in public.
…and this world was built as the result of a virus.
In the original graphic novel – written in the 1980s and set in the 1990s – the dystopia was created by nuclear war. But in the 2005 movie, set in the year 2020, it’s a virus. Poetic, no?
In the movie – unlike our less dramatic reality – the virus was “weaponised”, allegedly released as part of a terrorist attack. The public, hysterical with fear, empowered the state to destroy all their freedoms. Elections, protests, free speech. All gone.
The dynamics of this fascist power are well observed. From the corruption of government and military personnel sitting on the boards of big pharmaceutical companies; to the faux-camaraderie with the every man, expressed by an elite which lives a secret life of opulence and indulgence; to the barely-concealed fragility of the entire system.
For, though the power is concentrated and the system appears monolithic, all it takes is a small push to topple it. This insecurity is felt by all those in power.
Late in the film, as the government is beginning to lose control of the narrative, the High Chancellor (John Hurt) gives this speech to his Head of Media:
What we need right now is a clear message to the people of this country. This message must be read in every newspaper, heard on every radio, seen on every television. I want this country to realize that we stand on the edge of oblivion. I want every man, woman and child to understand how close we are to chaos. I want everyone to remember why they need us!
…what follows is montage of created media narratives and news footage – exaggerated, contrived or invented whole-cloth – designed to terrify the public into submission. This cynical understanding of the media is lacking in almost all films, especially those which claim to satirise the news or television industry. That the news could be, and regularly is, an entirely fictional narrative to serve a government agenda, is a fact even most alternate media personalities are slow to understand.
Aside from the themes and world building, the script is eminently quotable. From “artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up.” to “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh, beneath this mask there is an idea…and ideas are bulletproof!” and “Our integrity sells for so little, but it is all we really have.”
And, of course, a quote that could be made for our modern world:
You wear a mask for too long, and you forget who you are underneath it.”
So go find a copy of this film, and watch it to mark this November 5th. Witness the dystopian vision of England which – in 2005 – seemed like “something that could happen one day”, but has become something that is actually happening right now, in front of our eyes.
Early in the film V hijacks a television broadcast and gives this speech:
There are of course those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.
And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there?
Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.
How did this happen? Who’s to blame? [T]ruth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you.
It could hardly be more apposite.