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Photograph by David Appleby

Shave Party: Natalie Portman keeps reminding herself that Sigourney Weaver cut her hair, too, and it didn't hurt her career.

London After Dark

All's well that's Orwell in dystopian vigilante film 'V for Vendetta'

By Richard von Busack

EVERYTHING from B to Z—Batman to Zorro—influenced V for Vendetta, but the sense of elegance and tragedy is graphic novelist Alan Moore's own. But you do have to shut off the more sophisticated part of your political mind when you hear lines like "with enough people, blowing up a building can change the world." That's what Timothy McVeigh thought. The tension between attraction to and repulsion from superhero myths is what makes Moore the master of that lowbrow form. V for Vendetta bears only traces of Moore's ambivalence; in that respect, it was right that he removed his name from the film.

Still, this is a blockbuster with zeitgeist, a rabble-rousing adventure about a democracy terrified into submission, corralled by nativist panic and violently queer-proofed. V for Vendetta is ominous about what happens when evangelism and politics get together. Even knowing better, one cheers for the dark, knightly V (Hugo Weaving), a scarred guerilla hiding his features behind a wig and a strangely expressive Guy Fawkes mask.

America, torn by civil war and plague, remains an off-screen rumor. In curfew-darkened London, Evey (Natalie Portman) works as a coffee girl at the government broadcasting office. Caught by the police, she is rescued from a fate worse than death by the masked man. Afterward, V carries her up to see his first nighttime assault: the bombing of the Old Bailey criminal court. Later, he invades the TV station to make his own nationwide broadcast.

V has an erudite, humorously lamenting style when talking to the public about how they were frightened away from their responsibilities. (Does V stand for Gore Vidal?) In a year, on Guy Fawkes Day, the vigilante promises to host a public rally at the Houses of Parliament. During the year that follows, V inaugurates a one-man reign of terror, leaving a trail of dead politicians and officials marked with his signature red rose.

Unfortunately, director James McTeigue doesn't create a unique visual style for his dystopia. McTeigue, assistant director to the Wachowski brothers on the Matrix trilogy, raids 1984 tropes, including even the oily metal "V for victory" seen stamped all over Michael Radford's film version of the Orwell novel. There are about five too many scenes of the High Chancellor (John Hurt with straggly dyed whiskers, baring his blackened lower teeth from a video screen). He's so obviously a monster, you wonder how anyone voted for him. (Our cinema needs more fascists who are as civil and soft-spoken as Pat Robertson.)

Speaking of fangs, this film sinks its teeth into you and then lets go during the final third, which suffers from all the weak passages. Evey, the most-wanted woman in the British Isles, goes home to hang out and watch television, seemingly unnoticed by the all-seeing security apparatus. A famous TV host (Stephen Fry), supposedly cautious, whimsically decides to roast the all-powerful government on his show. He actually seems surprised when they retaliate. We also get a particularly unhappy image of the bald-shaven Portman turning toward a rapturous shower of computer-animated raindrops. The shot is a New Agey heart-warmer that McTeigue should have done without. It is also hard to understand the London police inspector named Finch (Stephen Rea), who succumbs to defeatism even as his quarry is almost in his grasp.

Originally scheduled for release on the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, V for Vendetta actually arrives on the third anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war. Nice timing; you couldn't ask for a better after End the War rally entertainment.

V for Vendetta (R; 132 min.), directed by John McTeigue, written by Andy and Larry Wachowski, based on characters created by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, photographed by Adrian Biddle and starring Natalie Portman and John Hurt, opens Thursday valleywide.

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