This stunning film adaptation “journeys straight to the heart of the nightmare” (Variety) portrayed in George Orwell’s terrifying classic. John Hurt is “perfect” (The Washington Post) as a doomed rebel, and Richard Burton “is a model of powerful restraint” (Chicago Tribune) as a sadistic agent of the ruling party.
Winston Smith (Hurt) endures a squalid existence in totalitarian Oceania under the constant surveillance of Big Brother. But his life takes a horrifying turn when he begins a forbidden love affair and commits the crime of independent thought. Sent to the chillingly labeled “Ministry of Love,” he is placed as the mercy of O’Brien (Burton), a coolly treacherous leader determined to control his thoughts…and crush his soul.
eyelights: John Hurt. Richard Burton. the set designs. the quality of the production.
eyesores: its grim tone. its drawn-out third act.
“If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.”
I still remember the first time I’d heard of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, the 1984 Michael Radford film based on George Orwell’s seminal classic. I had no knowledge of the book then, so this motion picture was all new to me.
My father, who was in town visiting, told me that he’d watched the scariest movie he’d ever seen the night before. Being a teenager, I was very curious and asked him what made it so scary, half-expecting untold horrors.
In fact, I still remember asking him if the men who came for Winston had guns – as though death (or at the very least mutilation) could be the scariest thing ever. He tried to explain, in vain, and I struggled to understand.
He gave up, but the idea was firmly planted.
Much later, for my 18th birthday, I decided that I really wanted to finally see the movie that had made such an impression on my dad. And so my friends and I rented ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and made a night out of it.
What a way to be ushered into adulthood! There are many fairly standard rites of passage: for instance, some people go get drunk, others are taken to prostitutes. I, on the other hand, was exposed to Orwell’s oppressive vision.
None of us hated the movie, but none of us could claim to have had a good time, either: we all sat there crushed under the weight of the film’s imagery and message. It was one heck of a downbeat birthday party!
And yet, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’s impact remains; I just can’t get it out of my head. Over the years, I have watched it a few more times, always curious to see how life experience might affect my appreciation of it.
Surprise, surprise: It’s still a dour, joyless exercise.
However, it’s difficult to not appreciate the quality of the production: Frankly, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is a jaw-dropping motion picture that perfectly recreates Oceania’s soul-sucking future to the most minute details.
Everything is grey and grim in Oceania: you can almost taste the dust in the air and feel the cold in your body as Winston wanders about the barren cityscapes. There’s absolutely no warmth or life anywhere to be found.
The only real passion comes from hatred: it’s channeled during the city’s huge congregations, where the government’s propaganda inflames the masses, provoking them to shout at and rage against their enemies.
Otherwise, everything and everyone is lifeless.
The picture begins with one of those congregations and it makes an immediate impression: it’s such a large mass of people, in front of such a large screen, and they’re all shouting at the screen on command. Geezus.
The setting up of Orwell’s reality is done quite well: We see Winston having to do morning exercises at the same as everyone else, going to work editing past history and seeing its immediate impact on the news.
We see the many propaganda videos being played incessantly on the televisors, either of dissidents confessing their sins and crimes or fear-mongering against their enemy, the mysterious figure named Goldstein.
And then there’s Big Brother, whose eerie face is as omnipresent as the monitors that are spying on everyone everywhere. This Big Brother doesn’t look benevolent at all; if anything, he’s an ominous figure, staring.
Reminding you that you’re being watched.
If anything, this production of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ makes me think of what it must have been like in the Soviet Bloc of old (adding a touch of Nazism), with complete state control and oppression of the masses.
So the film is off to a good start, but then it stumbles along the way when it brings in Julia: From the start, Winston is extremely distrustful of her, but the picture doesn’t make it especially clear why that is.
She’s just there. So what gives?
And then she makes contact with him, in an awkward trip that should have alerted anyone watching. Soon they becomes friends, for reasons unknown, and they eventually become lovers. You can’t feel the attraction.
Let alone the passion.
Then there’s the final act, in which Winston is tortured and interrogated by the authorities about his unsanctioned activities (i.e. having sex). This part drags on mercilessly, with the result being the breaking of his spirit.
It’s not just one-note and slow-paced, but it’s completely unstimulating – it doesn’t even translate Winston’s feeling of dread particularly well. So there we are watching him being questioned and providing answers.
The unfairness and absurdity of the moment come across completely, however, even if the inquisitor’s motives are only spelled out but never felt: every person has to be broken to fit into the bigger picture.
At all cost.
And the ending does permanently plant a few visceral images in one mind, like the sight of Winston’s tooth being snapped off (although why it was so brittle remains unexplained) and the scrambling rats in the headcage.
But, beyond that, we end the picture feeling deflated – not so much because of the heaviness of the concepts being presented, but because of the last act’s inertia. It just goes nowhere. Just like Winston.
And maybe that was the point. Maybe in breaking Winston’s spirit, we were to be broken too. The problem is that it doesn’t make for a great lasting impression, and it doesn’t make you want to watch the movie again.
Thankfully there’s the immensity and quality of the production combined with a some really stunning performances (in particular, from Sir Richard Burton, who is all cold and psychopathic here) it’s worth a good look.
But I’d probably watch the 1954 version first, if I had to watch one again.
Post scriptum: one thing that’s interesting about this production of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is that the studio, without the director’s knowledge or consent, commissioned the Eurythmics to create a score for the film. When it was first released, the film had their synthesizer score as backing, giving it a chilling, eerily ’80s flavour.
This created quite a controversy at the time, but the picture has since been released on home video with the original score by Dominic Muldowney, which is much more subtle. Frankly, I think that both are quite good in their own rights – just very different from one another. Thankfully, the latest blu-ray edition features both of them.
Date of viewing: May 19, 2016