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V for Vendetta presents a world where the government exploits people's fear of terrorism and denies gays and lesbians their civil rights. Sound familiar?

It's a disturbingly plausible nightmare scenario: In the big-budget studio thriller V for Vendetta, a totalitarian state, driven by fundamentalist Christian ideologues, rises in England under the specter of massive terrorist attacks. The government exploits the public's collective fear as an excuse to persecute and imprison Muslims, political dissidents, and gays and lesbians. What's more, the film's hero is a self-styled terrorist, a mysterious masked man named V (Hugo Weaving) with an affection for Guy Fawkes--the infamous Englishman who tried to blow up the houses of Parliament in 1605--whom we see through the eyes of Evey (Natalie Portman), an orphaned naif whom V rescues from rape in the film's opening scene.

As if those weren't enough timely hot potatoes to juggle, what may really surprise gay audiences--even those familiar with Alan Moore's 1980s comic book series later compiled into a 1989 graphic novel, on which the film is based--is how prominently queer characters figure in the film's story. In fact, when director James McTeigue and screenwriters Larry and Andy Wachowski (the Matrix trilogy) were updating the graphic novel's anti-Thatcherite politics for the screen, they changed one prominent character from being Evey's straight lover to being the closeted gay host of a popular talk show (played, natch, by gay Renaissance man Stephen Fry) who hides Evey after the government suspects she's in collusion with V.

"I think in some ways the graphic novel was a victim of its time in how to express homosexuality," explains McTeigue, the Wachowski's first assistant director on the Matrix movies, now making his debut in the big chair with Vendetta. "It's a larger comment on what actually goes on in the entertainment business as it is. Unfortunately, through the way that the media perceives actors and entertainers, there are people out there who lead secret lives. It was a good opportunity to comment on that."

Speaking of which, press reports of elder Wachowski brother Larry's cross-dressing and his relationship with a renowned Los Angeles dominatrix could lead audiences to understand why he might be drawn to sexual minorities in his films. (Alas, the Wachowski brothers, who made their film-directing debut with the ubersexy lesbian noir Bound, have not spoken with the media since the first Matrix film.)

Another of the film's sexual outsiders is Valerie, a lesbian prisoner of the state whose moving and thematically crucial story is told in flashback after Evey is captured, shorn bald, and cruelly imprisoned. Explains Natasha Wightman, the stunning London actress who plays Valerie, "she finds something, her integrity, which they can't take from her. She'd almost died and then come alive again through what she found in herself." The role required Wightman, who also works on nature-based documentaries, to shave her head as well, and she says the simple change helped to illuminate the kind of discrimination many lesbians experience.

"I like wearing combat [boots], I don't really wear makeup, and suddenly I had a skinhead," Wightman says. "People would definitely react to me differently, especially men.... I had the police called to my property because somebody thought I was breaking into my own house." She laughs. "I've got short hair, and suddenly I'm a bloke!"

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