Poor Great Britain. You’d think it would enjoy the presumption that its parliamentary institutions—having survived roughly eight centuries, through civil war, world war, aerial bombardment, nuclear cold war, imperial dominance and imperial decline, decades of IRA terrorism, and the late unpleasantness between Oasis and Blur—would have a strong immunity to autocratic takeover. But instead, the favored dystopian setting for our best-known works of anti-totalitarian art has been poor old stubbornly liberal Great Britain. There’s Orwell’s 1984, Patrick McGoohan’s riotous 1960s TV series The Prisoner, and the Sex Pistols and the Clash, with their apocalyptic rants against the U.K.’s “fascist regime” and its ever-impending “clampdown.” Now the Wachowski brothers have taken V for Vendetta, Alan Moore’s mad-at-Margaret Thatcher graphic novel, and updated it to express their present political rage. * The Wachowskis are very angry at George W. Bush, but still, for some reason, it’s Britain’s Parliament that gets blown up.
Because V for Vendetta is the most expensive Britain-as-totalitarian-dystopia film ever made, it provokes comparison with the greatest BATD film ever made, Terry Gilliam’s bleak 1985 comedy Brazil. In Brazil, which Gilliam co-wrote with playwright Tom Stoppard, Britain has become a bureaucratic tyranny run by sadistic paper-pushers and ruled by the well-mannered but vicious interrogators at the Ministry of Information Retrieval, who not only torture you but force you to pay the interrogation expenses. Brazil follows an unambitious bureaucrat from the Ministry of Records named Sam (Jonathan Pryce) who’s obsessed with a mysterious woman named Jill (Kim Greist) he’s never met but whom he dreams about constantly.
V for Vendetta takes place 50 years in the future after the world has been messed up in some grave but undefined way by “America’s wars,” and a Christian-fascist dictatorship has taken over Great Britain in response to a terrorist onslaught. In the Wachowskis’ adaptation (they also produced; the film was directed by James McTeigue), the hero V (Hugo Weaving) seeks vengeance on the regime that, through brutal radiation experiments, transformed him into a hideous (but powerful and articulate and exceptionally well-read) mutant.While V for Vendetta marks the Wachowskis’ continued slide into mediocrity and self-importance, Brazil is Gilliam’s most fully realized work. In no other film has Gilliam been able to put his penchant for baroque set design and elaborate comic digression to such exquisite use. The coils of pointless ductwork that come spilling out of walls and ceilings, and ultimately consume Sam’s apartment, are a tangible emblem of the bureaucratic entanglement that chokes pretty much everyone’s lives. Indeed, for much of the film, the atmosphere of frustration and thwarted longing is so pervasive, and so perfectly evoked, as to be almost unbearable.
This profound frustration is the solid foundation for Brazil’s memorable dream sequences, which in their slapstick grandiosity are among the best in movies. Placing the relationship between Sam and Jill within a scheme of frustration and dream-yearning gives the film its potent romanticism. There are few films in which you root harder for hero and heroine to finally get together. But the funny thing about Jill is what she stands for in the real world. Unlike the longhaired nymph of Sam’s dreams, Jill is in reality a truck driver with chopped hair and a tomboy’s brusqueness. In the world of Brazil she is a compelling object of erotic longing not just because she’s really cute but because, well, she has a truck. Sometimes, when you’ve been repeatedly thwarted by implacable bureaucrats, you just have to run things over.
This tight, almost psychoanalytic focus points to a telling difference between V for Vendetta and Brazil. Whereas V for Vendetta adopts the highly movieish perspective of an avenging Übermensch who has himself escaped the tyranny that ensnares everyone else, Brazil observes the totalitarian order from within. It presents the subjective experience of administrative tyranny. And it presents this tyranny not as expressing the conscious design of an evil omnipotent dictator everyone can wholesomely hate, but as an inexorable process that slowly envelops the individual trying to navigate it. This plays to another of Gilliam’s tics as a director. Gilliam loves the gawking fisheye, the distorted and limited—and highly unstable—visual frame. We follow poor Sam as he first consults, and then ultimately joins, Information Retrieval in order to track down his beloved Jill. But the higher he climbs in the bureaucratic order, the more absurd and incomplete the world appears.
McTeigue’s framing in V for Vendetta, on the other hand, is relentlessly explanatory. It’s a series of didactic visual inventories and static setups for V’s speeches, which the film pays far too much attention to. Though Natalie Portman’s Evey is allowed to express some reservations about V’s methods, the Wachowskis basically adopt V’s standpoint as their own. They clearly think this angry mutant is onto something. (They have half a mind to blow something up themselves.) The problem is that despite V’s burning anger at Georg Bu—I mean, the scientists and politicians who turned him into a freak—he is a world-class bore (another Wachowski specialty).
Nothing better illustrates the simplism of V for Vendetta, or better highlights the unflattering contrast with Brazil, than V’s motto: “There are no coincidences.” The comic beauty of Brazil’s portrait of totalitarianism is that everything rests on random coincidence, which nudges the bureaucracy into its own blind and murderous momentum: A dead fly falls into a computer printer and—voilà—poor law-abiding Buttle is mistaken for dangerous subversive Tuttle.
In V for Vendetta, there are no coincidences because, of course, it’s all a big, seamlessly executed conspiracy. The fascist supreme leader’s (John Hurt) total control dates back to a terrorism crisis that the government itself concocted, and he gilds his power with an ongoing barrage of manufactured threats and televised propaganda. This—the fact that everything bad is being consciously orchestrated by a fanatical tyrant—would be enough to make any comic book hero righteously vengeful. But V is angrier than that, even. The regime’s very evil propagandist Prothero (Roger Allam) is also the former commander of the concentration camp where V was experimented on. So, V kills him. And the camp’s indifferent chaplain is now not only a high-ranking Anglican bishop, but also a vicious pedophile. So, V kills him, too. (In other words, there are coincidences. Very convenient ones.) These things are mustered to justify not just V’s several murders, but his ultimate plan to bomb Parliament as well.
The funny thing about this ostensibly subversive setup is how closely it hews to the standard plot structure of reactionary revenge thrillers like Man on Fire and The Punisher. But these awful films are redeemed in a way by their cynicism. Their manipulations are transparent. Maybe the audience is fooled, but you can be sure that the filmmakers aren’t. When you’re watching V for Vendetta and you’re absorbing the mix of paranoia and gullibility that makes up its worldview, you get the unpleasant feeling that the Wachowskis actually believe this crap. And this naiveté ultimately is the biggest, most basic difference between Brazil and V for Vendetta. Underlying Brazil’s antic nightmare is a rigorous understanding of the bureaucratic totalitarianism that dominated much of the world for much of the 20th century. Underlying V for Vendetta is yet more magical thinking about that evil omnipotent genius, George W. Bush.
* Correction, March 24, 2006: In the original version of this article, Alan Moore’s first name was misspelled. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.