Since the attempt to assassinate King James I and blow up Parliament in 1605, November 5th has been celebrated in the United Kingdom as Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, and it persists in many unlikely parts of the Commonwealth, from St Vincent to South Africa. I regret that the tradition of children wheeling homemade effigies of Fawkes through the streets and crying "Penny for the Guy!" has all but vanished - although it still existed, albeit in somewhat menacing form, when I last lived in London twenty years ago.
In the United States, however, Guy Fawkes and his visage remained entirely unknown - until recent years, when it suddenly started turning up at antifa protests and, for those who like their activism a wee bit less active, as Twitter avatars on the Internet. For that we have to thank a film that came out a decade or so back, just in time to miss the quatercentenary of the original Gunpowder Plot. V for Vendetta, directed by James McTeigue and written and produced by the Wachowski Brothers, was adapted from a "graphic novel" (ie, comic book) from the Eighties by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. Mr Moore dissociated himself from the screen adaptation because he believed it had reduced his story, while retaining its UK setting, into a tedious dispute between "American neoconservatism and American liberalism". It's true that the film has its share of cheap applause lines with coy insertions of Bush-era obsessions like "rendition". I suppose I might as well get the whiny stuff about the politics out of the way first, so here goes:
V for Vendetta is set in a fascist Britain of 2027 and begins with a rabid telly pundit lip-curling his way through a list of verboten classes of persons: "Immigrants... Muslims... homosexuals..." Okay, I understand why the Left wants to keep the full panoply of favored victim exhibits in its Diversity Petting Zoo intact, but God, it's awfully boring, isn't it? I don't find it difficult to imagine dystopian futures where the gays and imams are on opposite sides: The stormtroopers of Big Gay cracking down on recalcitrant mullahs, or, conversely, the new mutaween of an Islamized west busting up lesbian rugby nights. Why do dystopian futures on the big screen all have to be the same? The rainbow coalition reeling under yet another "socially conservative" "right-wing" regime of dour authoritarian plonkers: is that the only script available?
That said, although they share essentially the same political vision, the film of V for Vendetta does far less vandalism to its source material than, say, the film of Children of Men. I believe it was David Lloyd (the arty half of the Moore & Lloyd words-and-pictures double-act) who came up with the idea of using a Guy Fawkes mask as a motif for the original graphic novel, and, as it was the middle of summer when the muse descended, he had to draw it (in those pre-Internet days) from memory. The stylized smirk is really quite ingenious: it conjures not an angry humorless anarchist (as so many of them are) but a witty, dashing cocker of snooks. It moves the usual predictable genuflections toward Orwell and 1984 - the Supreme Leader beamed in on giant telly screens, etc - and adds a dash of The Scarlet Pimpernel and, more explicitly, The Count of Monte Cristo.
Why does "V" - as "the terrorist" is known throughout the film - wear a Guy Fawkes mask? Well, he was unjustly imprisoned and, while in the state's hands, hideously disfigured - so that's a touch of The Phantom of the Opera, too. As he explains, what remains of his tissue and muscle is no more the "real" him than is the disguise: There is nothing behind the mask; there is only the idea. Hugo Weaving plays V and we never see his face, only the snook-cocking Fawkes mask: It's a brilliant performance because he makes the immobility move; he renders the static, unchanging visage versatile. We first meet him when he rescues Evie (Natalie Portman) from a trio of predatory "Fingermen" - the secret police who enforce the curfew and enjoy the opportunities it affords. Having dispatched her would-be rapists, V then starts monologuing: He is articulate and alliterative, ornate and orotund, a veritable "vichyssoise of verbiage", as he puts it. Dumas-wise, it's less Count of Monte Cristo than the Man in the Ironic Mask.
Miss Portman appears quite flummoxed by this, and indeed I'm not even sure a verbiage vichyssoise would be effective in the antifa era of ever more moronic sloganeering. But then I rather think V would find the average antifa or #BlackLivesMatter riot a bit of a bore. He quotes Macbeth - "I dare do all that does become a man"- and expects you to get the allusion, which would seem unlikely among today's simpleton revolutionaries, for whom "Love Trumps Hate" is the height of wit. In another Phantom touch, V takes Evie to his lair - an undercroft decorated with various samizdat artworks. "Where'd you get all this stuff?" marvels Evie. He explains that he stole it from "the vaults of the Ministry of Objectionable Materials" and, while loading up, managed to snaffle a jukebox of forbidden hits, including Julie London's "Cry Me A River" and the Stan Getz "Girl from Ipanema".
The "Ministry of Objectionable Materials"? Well, the all-powerful regime boss, played by John Hurt, is called the "High Chancellor". Can't see it myself. In today's west a totalitarian leader would be more likely to offer himself as "Commissioner of Diversity and Inclusion", wouldn't he? I don't really buy the idea that even conservatives - Hurt's character is a former Tory Under-Secretary of Defence - are panting for antiquated offices like Lord High Chancellorships. In Britain, as in Canada, "right-wing" parties are full of modish twerps anxious to toss overboard anything that makes them look in the least bit squaresville.
But, as I said, V for Vendetta carries off its drearier aspects with greater brio than most offerings in this genre. It benefits from a cracking cast staffed from the upper echelons of Brit Equity, from John Standing as the inevitable horny bishop to Sinéad Cusack as a coroner whose past catches up with her to Stephen Rea as a dogged Scotland Yard professional doing his job a little too well. The late Tim Piggott-Smith, a very great actor, could play the role of Creedy, the party boss, in his sleep, but, confronting a copper he suspects of not being entirely reliable, he coolly delivers the line "Your mother was Irish, wasn't she?" in a way that manages to convey a thousand years of condescension and impute to the recipient a shamrock-hued scarlet letter.
Among the other minor pleasures of the film is Roger Allam as the somewhat over-ripe telly blowhard Prothero - "the Voice of London" on the regime's propaganda network BTN (the British Television Network). It's harder than you might think to pull off lines like "I'm a God-fearing Englishman, and I'm damn well proud of it" without tipping over into parody. His catchphrase is "Who's with me? Who's bloody with me?", implying that if you're not he's happy to glass you in the snug of the village pub. Almost every recent film in this territory uses media to tell its story, and almost all do it badly: it's strange how unconvincing actors are at playing TV anchors reading headlines from prompters. But the BTN news readers are actually pretty good, and their subversion of reality is all too plausible: for example, after the terrorist destruction of the Old Bailey to the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, the evening news spins the line that this was an intended demolition, and the musical effects were merely a droll joke on the part of the contractors. The slightly forced tabloid larkiness of the item is very well poised somewhere between one of Sir Trevor McDonald's "And finally..." stories on "News at Ten" and one of those News of the World "Well, I never" yarns. My old "Loose Ends" confrère Stephen Fry, as a closeted gay celeb who keeps a forbidden Koran in his closet because of the "beauty" of some of its passages, is a slightly tougher sell, but the Benny Hill sketch that lands him in deep water is well done.
There's an exchange between Fry and Miss Portman that struck me when I first saw this film a decade ago, and which I thought of a year or two after its release during the Canadian Islamic Congress vs Maclean's trial, while listening to an "expert witness" from Philadelphia flown in to the Robson Street Courthouse in Vancouver to discourse expertly on my gags. "Is everything a joke to you, Gordon?" Miss Portman's character asks.
Fry's guy replies: "Only the things that matter." The partisan politics of this film are banal, but I appreciate that thought very much.
I also wonder if the film doesn't accidentally subvert its own message: Because "immigrants" have all been carted off to detention centers, the crowd scenes are all-white. Indeed, there's a slight disconnect between the contemporary-looking telly news bulletins, and the people watching them in saloon bars and suburban lounges that look like they've come out of a low-budget B-picture from the British Fifties. I suppose it's meant to be an indictment of that old, monochrome, homogeneous England, but, as with the recent Dunkirk, it also has a faintly elegaic quality. When Natalie Portman is preyed upon by Cockney n'er-do-wells that sound as if they're about to break into "Consider Yourself" from Oliver!, you wonder where a girl has to go to get set on by Cockneys these days: in today's multiculti London, if so-called "Cockney sparrows" like Barbara Windsor were actual sparrows, they'd be on the endangered species list. The slogan of the High Chancellor and his regime is "England Prevails". But that's the one futuristic vision you can safely rule out, if only on demographic grounds.
One day someone will make a dystopian thriller that doesn't simply project the victim groups of our own time into the future and into the torture dungeons of an improbably resurgent "conservatism", and actually say something novel and interesting about the internal contradictions of multiculturalism - like, say, a film in which a leftie gay rhapsodizes about the Koran and nobody raises an eyebrow. The Guy Fawkes mask's ubiquity in street protest and Internet exhibitionism has become a yawneroo, but that's not the fault of this picture: by comparison with almost any other recent venture into this field V for Vendetta tells its familiar tale with a rare wit and panache.
~If you disagree with Mark's movie columns and you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, then feel free to pursue your own vendetta in the comments. Club membership isn't for everybody, but it helps keep all our content out there for everybody, in print, audio, video, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Saturday movie dates.
If you're in the mood for less visual storytelling on a Saturday night, don't forget our bonus Tale for Our Time, courtesy of Rudyard Kipling and read by Mark. For more on The Mark Steyn Club, see here - and don't forget our new gift membership.