Turn on Newsnight over the past few weeks and you would have been more likely to see the face of George Clooney than that of Jeremy Paxman. Hollywood's zealous desire to hammer out a liberal agenda in a conservative climate has rarely been a hotter talking point. But instead of holding a dark mirror up to Bush-era ethics and post-9/11 paranoia, James McTeigue's outrageous V for Vendetta smashes straight through the looking glass into a world of anarchy.
While Clooney was picking pedantically through the labyrinth of Middle Eastern politics, McTeigue - a first-time director with the notable backing of two bankable scriptwriters, those Matrix maestros the Wachowski brothers - was blitzing the Houses of Parliament. Discovering that the oil business is probably a bit corrupt is hardly going to leave multiplex walls covered in popped eyes and blown minds; watching a mainstream film where a masked man destroys the Old Bailey in the name of liberty and freedom is a different kettle of controversy altogether.
The source material of V for Vendetta is Alan Moore and David Lloyd's 1989 graphic novel, a complex dystopian tale driven by the fear of an entirely different government. (Moore, apparently alarmed by the script, has completely dissociated himself from the film.) In the hands of the Wachowskis, however, the original anti-Thatcher story has been shaped to fit contemporary concerns, from religious fundamentalism and terrorism to biological warfare and Guantanamo-style prisons.
It is 2020. The United States is "the world's biggest leper colony", the world is in turmoil, and England is a totalitarian state led by the spittle-flecked Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). The population is under curfew, a sinister secret police force called the Fingermen stalks the streets, television is filled with rabid propaganda dispensed by a news-show host called Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam) and, most shockingly, Home Counties prisons have become concentration camps for dissenters. Into this bleak environment swashbuckles the masked V (Hugo Weaving), a freedom-fighting vigilante with a terrible past and an axe to grind. After he saves Evey (Natalie Portman) from being raped by a gang of Fingermen, she gradually becomes his sidekick, committed to following Guy Fawkes's example and bringing down the government on 5 November.
In the wake of the 7 July 2005 bombings, some may find it a disorientating experience to end up rooting for the fiery destruction of the Houses of Parliament, and there are a few queasy moments when you wonder whether this is the kind of landmark-wrecking film that would top Osama Bin Laden's must-see list. Yet the film's libertarian credentials are not in question: one of the most sympathetic characters is a lesbian arrested and murdered by the state; ownership of the Koran is also punishable by death. "People should not be afraid of their governments - governments should be afraid of their people," announces V, and the might of the individual is asserted over and over again.
It is not only its challenge to the politi- cal boundaries of the blockbuster that makes V for Vendetta so startling. Despite some good, gory fighting and a load of pyrotechnics, this is not a film in thrall to the high-gloss action of The Matrix; it prefers the flat, affectless silliness of Doctor Who. After all, the hero is entirely hidden behind a big wooden mask, and while Weaving does a fine job as the camply verbose V, the result of a one-night stand between Batman and Zorro, the ludicrous artifice is unshakeable. Doe-eyed, shaven-headed Natalie Portman might as well be wearing a mask - that of Bambi, perhaps, or a Margaret Keane waif. Still, she manages to make a sympathetic cipher out of Evey (changed from the book's prostitute to a TV-station runner, in a rare lapse of nerve). The preponderance of stagy British talent - Stephen Fry as a closeted TV presenter, Tim Pigott-Smith as the secret service villain, Rupert Graves as a sympathetic policeman - also lends the film a curious BBC Drama airlessness, an atmosphere that has little to do with the flash and dazzle of Hollywood, and promises a new set of rules.
It's telling that V for Vendetta also revels in the kind of dense code beloved by sci-fi geeks: tick off the references to Zorro, 1984 and Shakespeare. At one point, Evey and V are seen watching the 1934 version of The Count of Monte Cristo. "Does it have a happy ending?" asks Evey. "As only celluloid can deliver," says V.
Sure enough, the Wachowskis' vision is pure artifice, a cinematic confection that is free to be as flamboyant as it likes. There are no CIA men, no Qaeda terrorists, no corrupt oil barons, and no sense of self-congratulatory bravery. By leaping into fantasy and heading for its own version of a happy ending with all guns blazing, however, it blows the competition - not to mention the Houses of Parliament - out of the water.