NINE-TEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, 1984
George Orwell's novel of a totalitarian future society in which a man whose daily work is rewriting history tries to rebel by falling in love.
George Orwell’s iconic novel “Nineteen-Eighty-Four” has been adapted several times for film and television. It wouldn’t feel right to say Michael Radford’s production brings Orwell’s novel to life, because the world it portrays seems so utterly lifeless. “We are the dead,” a quote repeated a few times throughout “Nineteen-Eighty-Four,” is eerily fitting. With their washed-out features, listless movements and cold eyes, the citizens of Orwell’s dystopia look like the walking undead. That said, Radford’s version is still the most effective screen adaptation of the novel.
The year is 1984, and the world has split into three warring totalitarian states: East Asia, Eurasia, and Oceania. Our story takes place in Oceania, which is ruled by the never-seen but all-seeing Big Brother. There are cameras and telescreens everywhere, allowing government to spy on the citizens at all times. Winston Smith, an unassuming pencil-pusher for the Ministry of Truth, isn’t so keen on the idea. Winston is charged with altering documents to ensure Big Brother never dispenses inaccurate information. Ration details are altered, the identity of Oceania’s enemy regularly changes from Eurasia to East Asia and back again, and the dead are erased from history.
One day, Winston discovers a corner of his room from which he cannot be seen, and there, he begins to write in a journal. As if this weren’t a heinous crime in itself, Winston gets sexually involved with the attractive, seemingly fearless Julia. Things start looking hopeful when Winston comes under the tutelage of government official O’Brien, who claims to be part of an underground resistance. In a society where love and loyalty are given exclusively to Big Brother, can Winston afford to trust either of these new allies?
It probably isn’t much of a spoiler to say “no.”
“Nineteen-Eighty-Four” is one of those movies you can appreciate for its merits, but it’s hard to say you enjoy watching it. It’s relentlessly depressing, but that is essential if its message is to make the proper impact. Radford sustains a tone of uncompromising bleakness, showing us a world stripped of freedom and love. People can’t trust their own families anymore, and those who resist Big Brother are subjected to horrendous torture. There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, and for this film to work, that’s how it has to be.
Radford also wrote the screenplay, which proves a worthy adaptation of Orwell’s novel. Some details are left out, but that’s to be expected, and the screenplay retains the most important aspects of the book. Although Radford keeps a great deal of the dialogue, he also makes compelling use of silence. In a world where speaking your mind can get you killed, most of the characters opt to speak as little as possible.
The cast is perfect, inhabiting their roles so believably that it’s actually a little unnerving. In his final role, Richard Burton exudes calm and control as O’Brien. Whether subjecting Winston to electric shocks or pulling a tooth from his mouth, he acts as though it’s all for his victim’s own good. Burton uses his weary, hypnotic voice to chilling effect. Try not to feel uneasy at lines like, “If you want a picture of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.”
As Winston Smith, John Hurt looks ragged and haunted, even before his run-in with the Thought Police. Hurt throws himself into the role without reservation, taking us along for the ride as Winston is put through the wringer. His subdued performance gives way to screaming agony as he endures O’Brien’s re-education, until he’s left an emaciated, sobbing shell of his former self. These torture scenes are difficult to take: essentially, we are watching the physical, mental and emotional destruction of a human being. Both Burton and Hurt sell every moment, and by the end of the movie, you feel quite drained.
Suzanna Hamilton turns in a daring performance as Julia, Winston’s partner-in-Sexcrime. She plays the role in a very laid-back way, but always with a dangerous spark of rebellion in her eyes. Hamilton’s matter-of-fact approach to her nude scenes falls in line with Julia’s real motivation for the affair: to her, the sex is political, not romantic. Her nakedness becomes clinical rather than sensual, another casualty of a society where art, emotion and love are suppressed.
There was a bit of controversy about the musical score. Radford hired composer Dominic Muldowney to do the music, unaware that Eurythmics had already been signed up for the gig. The score wound up as a combination of Muldowney’s music and Eurythmics’, and it actually works quite well. The film opens with Muldowney’s operatic national anthem, “Oceania, ‘Tis For Thee,” and closes with Eurythmics’ haunting “Julia.” In their own way, each of these musical styles suits the movie’s tone.
“Nineteen-Eighty-Four” was actually filmed in 1984, and in fact, the dates Winston writes in his diary match the actual days on which the scenes were shot. Knowing that, it must have been a relief at the end of the day for the cast and crew to return to the real world, and to look upon a 1984 that was not as Orwell described.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Orwell wasn’t onto something. The human race is still not free of torture and tyranny, and our privacy is becoming increasingly difficult to protect. The world of today is not the world Orwell knew, but it could still become the one he predicted.
Michael Radford’s production of “Nineteen-Eighty-Four” is a bleak film with excellent production values and fine performances. It is as relevant today as it was twenty-six years ago, a startling and important cautionary tale about what could become of our world, if we let it happen.