London Calling

by Tom Watson
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I’m not a film completist; with three children and a limited window of screening opportunities outside of video-on-demand, my year’s best, non-kiddie category, is scant by definition. So my “best of” list in the cinematic arts is limited to exactly two pictures, the only two to really cut through the mist of over-production and bad popcorn, and to stick to my intellectual ribs like butter on a toasted corn muffin.

Both are deeply English, more so in language than in culture. Both have all their crucial action scenes in and around London. And both deal with government and with the power of perception in the masses, a crucial factor in self-governance and the source of legitimacy of power.

VqV for Vendetta caused one right-wing reviewer to rant that the film was “a vile, pro-terrorist piece of neo-Marxist, left-wing propaganda filled
with radical sexual politics and nasty attacks on religion and Christianity.” Others took it as a parable of neoconservatism run wild: its core story of America in ruins, and Britain run by a brutish totalitarian regime is filled with torture, secret imprisonment, the end of fair trials, and a government spying on its citizenry.

But the nightmarish dystopian comic book tale by the brilliant Alan Moore by published more than two decades ago, during the Reagan-Thatcher era and should not be viewed as modern topical commentary, though it was certainly a product of Moore’s thoughts on Cold War politics. Written by Matrix sketch artists the Wachowski brothers, the screenplay (which Moore disavowed) has the layers and depth of a masterwork – surprising because their previous work, while fun, isn’t as nearly rich. Or memorable. In a movie with tremendous dialogue – and you notice it more perhaps when the leading man wears in immobile Guy Fawkes mask – the most memorable line is this:

“People shouldn’t be afraid of their governments…governments should be afraid of their people.”

And that sentiment is precisely at the center of the other best picture this year, The Queen. It’s a different England, of course, but there’s a vein of authenticity – in language, in politics, in history – that runs through both films. In V for Vendetta, a lone assassin seeks revenge for years of terror and torture in the name of order; in The Queen, a nominally powerless monarch comes to terms with mass hysteria in the modern world of media – a hysteria that strikes to the heart of what really constitutes the shifting tides of democratic power.

Helen Mirren is, as has been widely noted, in pitch-perfect form as Elizabeth II – a charismatic, sympathetic performance of truly historic proportion. Cold, forbidding, corrupted by wealth and remove from daily life, this queen is nonetheless human. And in the strange, wild times after Diana’s death in Paris, Mirren’s queen confronts modernity.

As Hugo Weaving’s faceless V has the very human, very beautiful, very vulnerable Natalie Portman to balance his hard-crusted visage, so too does Mirren’s Elizabeth have the bouncy, optimistic preen of Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair to counter the cool mask of royalty. Both V and the queen are other-wordly, living outside of the real world – one with mouth turned up in paint, the other with mouth turned down in disapproving restraint.

Both films reveal the power of the mob; how ironic that the masses in each movie converge on the small patch of turf between Hyde Park and the Thames, the center of changing British power for 1,000 years. One gathers in shared grief for a superhuman celebrity none of them has ever known. The gathers to take back power, but only after their rank complicity in the loss of democratic rights has been dramatically revealed by a comic book superhero throwback to the Gunpowder Plot.

I felt drawn into both movies, and believed that the world of V was as possible, as real as the world of Queen Elizabeth; we’ve seen nightmares of V’s world in the 30s and 40s and after. We’ve seen the Diana spectacle and the royals’ cluelessness on cable television. As James Cromwell’s wonderfully arrogant Prince Phillip announces to the household:

Sleeping in the streets and pulling out their hair for someone they never knew. And they think we’re mad!

Yes we do think you’re mad – and fascinating, and worthy of the finest portrayal. So my movie list is only two-deep, but they’re with me still. With me in visions of people in the streets, harbingers perhaps of the coming year’s headlines.

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