February 10, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

A subway train packed with explosives idles beneath the streets of London, a mile down the track from Big Ben.

It’s June 7, 2005, at 9 a.m. — exactly one month to the hour before four coordinated terrorist bombings will kill 52 civilians on London’s Underground and bus system — and the cast and crew of V for Vendetta are filming the movie’s finale, in which a vigilante seeks to undermine a fictional totalitarian regime by threatening to blow up Parliament.

With that real-life tragedy unforeseeable, spirits are high this Tuesday inside the ghostly Aldwych tube stop, 100 feet under the Strand: Today’s scene happens to fall on the last day of a pressure-packed three-month shoot. Between several highly emotional takes, Natalie Portman — bald, badass, and raring to topple a government or two with her bare hands — takes a load off. She makes goofy faces. She playfully rolls her eyes. She kibitzes with her costars. She chats about the plans that are cooking for her 24th birthday later in the week. Nearby, Matrix veteran Hugo Weaving savors a smoke and chuckles while talking about how despite years of classical training, he always seems to wind up acting in dirty old subway stations. And crew members sip their wake-up brews and get a kick out of their morning papers (Russell Crowe throws telephone at hotel clerk!) while waiting for the cameras to roll again on this scene about a train carrying a bomb.

V for Vendetta is set around the year 2020. The world is in turmoil. News reports announce that the ”Ulcered Sphincter of Asserica” is torn amid civil war and chaos. Meanwhile, England is ruled by fascists that control the media and suppress free speech. Homosexuals have been rounded up and shipped off to internment camps. Citizens are executed for owning copies of the Koran. A hundred thousand souls have been lost to biological attacks launched in the water supply. Lurking underground is a mysterious man named V (Weaving) who wears a mask resembling traitorous British folk hero Guy Fawkes — the bloke who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605 — and who delivers bons mots like ”People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.” And, for reasons that soon become clear, he’s got a vendetta. So he recruits a lonesome naïf (Portman) to aid him in his grand plan: to overthrow the oppressors.

If a literary action fantasy about a small group of freedom fighters trying to bring down a tyrannical regime sounds familiar, that’s because V comes courtesy of the same team behind The Matrix: Warner Bros. Pictures, producer Joel Silver, and enigmatic filmmaking brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski, who are credited here as producers and screenwriters. And it offers the same kind of thinky thrills. ”What the boys have done, what they always do, is try not to take a specific stand,” Silver says. ”They like to tell a story, and whatever you bring to that is what they want you to bring.”

Based on the landmark Orwellian graphic novel that Alan Moore wrote and David Lloyd illustrated in the 1980s as a rebuke to conservative Thatcherism in the U.K., V for Vendetta aims for the provocative bravado of such classic cinematic allegories as Metropolis and A Clockwork Orange and may be the most subversive studio film to come out in the wake of 9/11. It’s hard to think of a current hot button the movie doesn’t press. State-sanctioned torture? Check. Wiretapping? Yep. The politics of homosexuality? You bet. Bioterrorism, the avian flu, the Iraq war, and pedophile priests? They’re all covered. ”How people interpret its relevance is so personal,” says Portman, acknowledging that the film is likely to stir controversy. ”Some people [will be] like, ‘This is an antifascism movie!’ And some like, ‘This is Iraq!’ And some [will] totally interpret it as the current U.S. government.”

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