It’s been 15 years since James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta hit theaters. Adapted from the Alan Moore/David Lloyd comic book miniseries, V for Vendetta took the Margaret Thatcher-era conservative versus anarchism themes and made them more contemporary for American audiences by spinning them as conservativism versus liberalism. The distinction may seem marginal, but is, in many respects, quite large as the manner in which the protagonist V operates in both stories varies enough to make each presentation entirely distinct from the other. Though McTeigue’s film, written by the Wachowski Sisters (Lilly and Lana), shifts the focus, the message remains entirely valuable and, as America seems to be fighting a similar battle of conservative vs. liberalism, a new release on 4K UHD for the first time is perfectly timed. That’s right, the tale which draws inspiration from the November 5th, 1605, Gunpowder Plot which made Guy Fawkes famous, is hitting shelves and digital services once more, arriving for home viewing on November 3rd, just as the United States elects its next President. (“The 1812 Overture” by Pyotr Tchaikovsky not included.)
In an alternate timeline, the United Kingdom is under the tight rule of the Norsefire Party, led by High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt), who maintains order by way of tight restrictions on the thoughts and actions of its citizenry. No one is allowed out past curfew, anything that offends or degrades Sutler is deemed propaganda, and, with even the slightly provocation, a person can be thrown into a secret prison or worse. One night, Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) dares to go out and is caught by several members of the secret police known as “Fingermen.” Before they can do irrevocable harm, a masked man calling himself V (Hugo Weaving) rescues her and delivers her to safety, only to blow up the Old Bailey building before her eyes. This would only be the first of several interactions the two would engage in as V sets his sights higher: a public protest the following year where he will blow up Parliament. Caught between V’s seething righteousness and Sutler’s political machine, Evey and the whole of the U.K. must decide for what they are willing to fight and possibly die.
In terms of adaptation, Moore’s very public complaints over the shift in focus are entirely valid. It’s not just that Evey was turned into a staff member of the British Television Network who worked with several prominent characters rather than a 16-year old turning prostitute for the first time when we meet her or that V himself is far more murderous than chivalrous on the printed page. It’s that the original comic possessed no true hero where the film is far more declarative about V. The Wachowski script does contain nuance, one which does explore the strangely tyrannical nature of conservatism, but its desire to declare one side a hero and one a villain removes any real need for analysis of the story upon completion. Not to mention that theirs is a gigantic difference in ideology between anarchism and liberalism, though both likely seem synonymous to those entrenched in hyper-conservatism. From that perspective, anything non-cisgendered, non-Christian, and/or non-Caucasian runs the risk of being corruptive and must therefore be put down or put away. Honestly, it boggles the mind how anyone in that particular ideology today could indulge in any popular culture, especially from the late 1970s forward, as the stories of that era — V for Vendetta, Watchmen (another Moore story), Star Wars, Indiana Jones — clearly featured a similar highly restrictive theology or ideology connected to the villains. To be blind to the presentation confuses and confounds to this day. Combine this with the notion that “politics should remain out of art” and my confusion reaches critical mass. There is literally no moment when an individual’s politics, their perception of the world, doesn’t influence what they create. Which brings us back to the adaptation of V for Vendetta. Moore has a clear view on the world which he and Lloyd used to create their comic. With the film, the Wachowski Sisters inserted a larger focus on the impact of a government which rules by fear: fear of different religions, fear of different sexual orientations, fear of anything which might subvert the power structure. This is why the inciting incident that happens long before the film begins involves a plot by Sutler and his inner circle manufacturing a plague that sends the entire country into a panic that longs for pacification and a sense of protection. Oddly prescient given the times we’re in except, within the rules of the film, fear is being used to manipulate citizenry to risk exposure via individualism while the opposition uses hope to elicit social collectivism. Strange how reality is the absolute of fiction yet the similarities remain. The fact that the film remains as politically significant today as it did in 2005 while retaining all the elements which made it entertaining is certainly nothing to scoff at. Even if much has been joked about regarding the release date in relation to the line borrowed from the English Folk Verse “The Fifth of November,” “remember, remember! The fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot;”.
As a home release, V for Vendetta has always been packed with special features that enable home viewers to learn more about the original comic, Guy Fawkes, how the film was made, and more. These materials previously available on past Blu-ray releases are included with the 4K UHD release, though strictly on the accompanying Blu-ray disc. As these features are available on past digital releases, one can easily surmise that they will also be accessible with the digital edition sold through various online retailers. This is important to note as the contents of any new release or remaster can be a determining factor when deciding to jump in or wait. The good news is that the old features are not the *only* features included on the home release. Contained only on the 4K UHD disc are three new featurettes which include an exploration of the making of the film called “V for Vendetta Unmasked”, Natalie Portman’s previously unreleased audition for Evey, and a brief conversation between director James McTeigue & writer Lana Wachowski. While the “Unmasked” featurette does include information you’ve likely seen or heard before in the last 15 years, the audition tapes and recorded conversation are most certainly new new. For those that enjoy seeing their favorite actors working their craft, the audition tapes feature Portman performing three scenes with an unseen scene partner, two of which are followed by the final versions from the film. This is a great way to see the differences between the initial attempts and the theatrical presentation. Longtime fans of Vendetta or the Wachowski will want to jump right into the featurette between McTeigue and Lana. Based on a brief mention regarding 2020, this was recorded after the COVID-19 lockdowns began, making their commentary on the process of making the film and the exploration of the film’s meaning to them feel entirely eerie. It was also nice, even in passing, to hear them discuss that it was more than Weaving behind the mask, but several including actor James Purefoy (Fisherman’s Friends), John Wick director Chad Stahelski (who served as supervising stunt coordinator), and Atomic Blonde director David Leitch (who served as assistant stunt coordinator).
As with any first-time 4K UHD release, one does wonder if the upgrade from Blu-ray is worth it. The final call on that is a strong “maybe.” The HDR is most notable in the darker sequences like V’s initial appearance, his attack on Roger Allam’s Lewis Prothero, and the final sequence outside Parliament. In scenes like these, the blacks are nice and inky, the reds pop, and the surrounding colors are authentically rich. The few sequences which show Sutler and his inner circle take on a stronger creepiness as Sutler’s minions are almost entirely engulfed in darkness, the light only illuminating their faces when they lean forward. With the HDR, the sequence really conveys how deep in the shadows this government prefers to work, communicating the terror inherent in a fascist regime. Where it doesn’t work as well are in the sequences of memory which are given a shimmer or sheen to help separate the present from the past. The ever-present halo appears enhanced, but doesn’t necessarily add to the emotional weight of the sequences. One thing of note is that the majority of the film does not seem improved or elevated via the HDR like other recent releases (Full Metal Jacket, Jaws, and Batman), but it doesn’t denigrate it either (like with 300). Rather, the HDR assists in making the film seem both modern and yet of a period in the past, despite being set in a potential future. Some of this is assisted by the costume design from Sammy Sheldon (Ex Machina), but most certainly is in large part to Adrian Biddle’s (Reign of Fire) cinematography which infuses the film with a bit of the 1980s style of the original comic. Regarding the audio, the included Dolby Atmos could not be tested due to technical restraints. What we did hear, however, was crystal clear and enveloping. The scene with the dominoes is always a bit chilling in execution and the clarity of the falling pieces really brings the emotional point home.
Release date frustration aside, V for Vendetta remains just as thought-provoking as ever and stands out as a highlight to the Wachowski’s ability to write scenes that delight, thrill, and frighten almost all at once. Especially in the case of Vendetta, their use of echoing in action and dialogue throughout the film (when Evey speaks to V at the Shadow Gallery vs. her conversation with Stephen Fry’s Deitrich, or the presentation of Evey’s rebirth against V’s) makes the profound accessible and the ordinary a touch terrifying. One can easily take V for Vendetta as just another superhero romp, yet there is so much under the surface that anyone would be better improved for lifting up the mask and seeing through it. This may not be Moore’s intention, but it’s absolutely what McTeigue encourages from the moment the audience meets V.
V for Vendetta Special Features on 4K UHD
- *New* V for Vendetta Unmasked (23:28)
- *New* Natalie Portman’s Audition: Explore the depth of Evey’s character with Natalie Portman’s never-before-seen audition (14:06)
- *New* James McTeigue & Lana Wachowski in Conversation (13:18)
V for Vendetta Special Features on Blu-ray
- Freedom! Forever!: Making V for Vendetta – The cast and crew of V for Vendetta reveal the intense filmmaking process
- Designing the Near Future – A look at the artistic process of creating the frightening future world of V
- Remember, Remember: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot – The history behind the story of Guy Fawkes
- England Prevails: V for Vendetta and the New Wave in Comics – The origins of the original V story is illuminated
- Cat Power Montage – Cat Power song played under images of the film
- Theatrical Trailer
- Easter Egg: Hidden Bonus: Saturday Night Live Digital Short
Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray Combo Pack and digital November 3rd, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.