A grim future Britain, some two decades hence. The country is ruled by a fascist dictatorship which relies on demagogic demonisation of the Other to maintain control. Sedition is in the air. Our protagonist must navigate between the repressive state and the violent rebels, whose motives may be suspect. Historical parallels abound, both to Nazi Germany and the Global War on Terror.
This description could apply to either of two films released to cinemas within a year of one another in the mid-'00s: V for Vendetta and Children of Men. Both were major, big-budget productions helmed by non-British directors, but only the latter, in my view, successfully depicts what a dystopian Britain might look like. V for Vendetta, meanwhile, is not only the inferior movie, but has also had a narrow but catastrophic impact on Western culture.
I will begin by saying that I don't hate V for Vendetta. As pure popcorn viewing, it's an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours and contains many arresting sequences. I'll even give it credit for attempting to introduce themes of political philosophy in the context of a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster, though (as we shall see), this opportunity is squandered in the worst possible way. I also don't intend to take it to task for the many liberties it takes with the original graphic novel (with one justified exception - see below); it stands or falls as a work of art in its own right.
The problem is that V isn't content to be simple entertainment. Instead, it demands we take it seriously as a political statement, which is why I am obliged to note how abysmally it fails in that ambition. As cinema, V for Vendetta will do. As politics - and as history, for that matter - it is beyond moronic, a hysterical assemblage of cliches culled from the seedier precincts of the "anti-imperialist" left. Let's take a closer look.
The problems begin in the very first scene, with a reconstruction of the discovery and execution of Guy Fawkes, narrated by Natalie Portman's lead character. In this scene is contained the fundamental wrongheadedness that saturates the entire film, as the attempted mass-murderer and Catholic fundamentalist is lauded as some kind of martyr for freethinking dissent. Apart from disclosing a storied ignorance of British history, this scene also encapsulates the filmmakers' lobotomised politics.
The thing is not uphold a just cause, or fight for the dispossessed, or even to have principles at all. Instead, authority must always and everywhere be met with blind, undirected opposition. What does it matter that the faction Fawkes represented brought Europe the Spanish Inquisition, the counter-reformation and the martyrdom of Galileo? That the government he sought to destroy, though autocratic by modern standards, gave us Shakespeare, the King James Version and, ultimately, the United States of America? Fawkes was an enemy of The Man, and therefore virtuous.
The film never recovers from this central miscalculation, which is bookended by the climactic destruction of the Houses of Parliament. This is presented as a grand, cathartic victory for the people against their fascist rulers, but if that's the idea, why blow up the one building that, more than any other, symbolises popular legitimacy in Britain? Again the filmmakers betray their outsider's view of our history. The parliament Fawkes sought to destroy was to evolve into the Mother of Parliaments, the model for all democratic legislatures, everywhere.
If these themes were marginal to V for Vendetta, the film might be salvageable. Regrettably, though, the Wachowski brothers (now the Wachowski siblings) choose to run with the Fawkes allusions throughout. The most notorious example of this has bled into reality: the title character's stylised mask. V's box-office success has led to these becoming a ubiquitous presence in every radical protest, each one a middle finger to history.
Some might argue that I'm being too harsh on a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster adapted from a comic. It's not meant to be taken that seriously, right? I'd retort that V, by choosing to evoke the victims of Nazism throughout, is demanding to be taken seriously. If you're going to have a lengthy sequence in which a young lesbian is systematically persecuted by the government before being tortured to death in a concentration camp, her body (as we see in a later scene) dumped into a Treblinka-like pit of emaciated corpses, you must commit to backing up those images with substance, to justify the exploitation of genuine tragedy.
Never has any work of art so comprehensively failed that test. The ransacking of historical imagery doesn't stop there, as the makers of V for Vendetta don't trust their audience to see torture, concentration camps and black propaganda as bad things in themselves. Instead, they decide to scream "NAZIS!" in our collective face for the duration. The uniforms, the insignia of the ruling party, everything. In the most telling example, the bald dictator named Susan from the graphic novel is here changed to "Sutler", complete with a Hitlerian hairdo.
Finally (you'll be relieved to hear), the film appears to take place in no known country, particularly not the one of my birth. The depiction of Britain herein is hopelessly ersatz, not helped by Natalie Portman, who sounds constantly on the verge of Critical Accent Failure. The title character's iconic introductory scene, in which he dispatches a pack of secret policemen before delivering a florid introductory speech, bafflingly takes place on a cobbled street. In London. In the 21st century. Presumably they must have had it built specially.
There are many other aspects of the film I could pick apart, from its witless deconstruction of the War on Terror to its signal failure to evoke the atmosphere of a real dictatorship. This article is already quite long enough, however, and talking about V for Vendetta is doing my blood pressure no good, so let's turn to a much more pleasurable subject: Children of Men.
The difference is apparent from the opening scene (embedding disabled). In an instant, as Clive Owen's protagonist steps out into grimy, near-future London, it feels right. Here, one feels instinctively, is how a dystopian Britain would look and sound. The buildings are worn-down, the advertising moves, rickshaws hurry past, but this is recognisably London after a decade or two of decay.
The scene also elegantly sets up the film's central conceit: "Diego Ricardo, the youngest person on the planet, was eighteen years, four months, twenty days, sixteen hours and eight minutes old". Here is another key difference. Where V for Vendetta adheres to the "Underpants Gnome" theory of despotism popular on certain paranoid fringes of the left (1. Global War on Terror, 2. ???, 3. HITLER!!!), Children of Men posits an infinitely more plausible cause of societal decay: total human infertility.
This audacious premise could only work if properly thought through with attention to detail, and director Alfonso Cuarón doesn't let us down. Everywhere there are tiny touches: the Gap clothing adverts with animals instead of children; the suicide kits dispensed by the government to cope with an aging population; the office workers with childhood mementos at their desks. This leads us neatly to the film's second great strength, exposition.
In speculative fiction, the need to disclose essential backstory is in constant tension with the imperatives of plot and narrative flow. V for Vendetta copes with this by surrendering, delivering all its exposition in great leaden slabs of narration and flashback. By welcome contrast, the world of Children of Men reaches us in fragments, each one filling in a tiny piece of the picture. Overheard snatches of radio and TV broadcasts. Old newspapers. Conversational asides. Particularly impressive is the wealth of professional-looking advertisements, most only appearing in the film for a second or less:
By the end, the viewer feels like a citizen of this blighted and benighted land - and what a land. In another unflattering comparison to V, the true nature of Britain's future fascist government is mostly hinted at, rarely shown directly. A propaganda video proclaims "Britain Soldiers On", while another urges citizens to report illegal immigrants for deportation. Refugees in cages on a train platform. A brutal raid on a block of flats, seen in the background as the main character walks by. Heavier armour and darker uniforms on soldiers and police. Again, the exposition is so skillful you hardly feel it going in; it simply becomes part of the atmosphere.
The implicit is only made explicit in the film's final sequence, where we visit the government internment camp for immigrants, built around the former seaside town of Bexhill; it is a Bosch-like vision of Hell. Here is a rare point of commonality with V for Vendetta, as both Nazi Germany and the War on Terror are alluded to. But the difference is like night and day. By showing us a convincing, organic fictional universe, one you can imagine continuing to exist after the credits roll, Children of Men has earned the right to deal in these images.
Again, I could go on, but I'd prefer you simply watch the movie, especially if you're more familiar with V for Vendetta. It will vindicate your love of cinema if you have one, and give you one if you don't. As for V, the damage has already been done and I'm in no position to reverse it. I simply issue this plea: if you want to protest the G8, or the WTO, or the Church of Scientology, do so with my blessing. Just leave the mask at home. Please.