After The Atomic War the world is divided into three states. London is the capital of Oceania, ruled by a party who has total control over all its citizens. Winston Smith is one of the bureaucrats, rewriting history in one of the departments. One day he commits the crime of falling in love with Julia. They try to escape Big Brother's listening and viewing devices, but, of course, nobody can really escape...
Directed by: Michael Radford
. Starring: John Hurt
, Richard Burton
, Suzanna Hamilton
, Cyril Cusack
, Gregor Fisher
, James Walker
, Andrew Wilde
, David Trevena
, David Cann
, Anthony Benson
, Peter Frye
, Roger Lloyd Pack
, Rupert Baderman
. Music by: Dominic Muldowney
In the year 1984, when I was a college student, there was much discussion of George Orwell's famous novel, generally concentrating on how far his predictions had come true since he wrote it in 1948. Some felt that he had got everything right except the sex of the supreme dictator and that the country was now being run by Big Sister (by which they meant Margaret Thatcher) rather than Big Brother. Others claimed that the novel could be read as a prediction of developments in post- Stalin Russia and post-Mao China where the apparatus of state repression was now being used to defend not the Revolution but the power, status and privileges of the Soviet nomenklatura and its Chinese equivalent. All agreed that Orwell had been prescient in predicting the division of the world into three power blocs, his Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia corresponding roughly to NATO, the Warsaw Pact and Red China.
It was perhaps therefore inevitable that the novel would be filmed in that year. (It had earlier been adapted for television and the cinema in the fifties). There was, however, perhaps a problem. Orwell was not a particularly visual writer; he dealt in words more than pictures, and several phrases coined in the book have passed into our language. ("Newspeak", "thoughtcrime", "doublethink", "Thought Police", "telescreen", "Room 101", "Big Brother", etc.). It is notable that many of these words refer either to speech or to thought, and in fact "Nineteen Eighty Four" is more than just a satire on totalitarianism; it is also an exploration of various philosophical, political and linguistic issues.
These are difficult concepts to convey in cinematic form, and the director Michael Radford wisely concentrates more on the anti- totalitarian aspects of the story. Radford and cinematographer Roger Deakins originally wanted to shoot the film in black-and-white, which would have fitted well with Orwell's grim descriptions of existence in the totalitarian superstate of Oceania, but this proved unacceptable to their financial backers. Their solution was to use a process called bleach bypass to create the film's very distinctive washed-out look, dominated by blacks and greys, about as close as a colour film can get to monochrome. There are few, if any, bright colours except in the brief sequences where the film's hero Winston Smith and his lover Julia travel into the countryside. Most of the film is set in a London which has become a bleak urban wasteland.
Although the novel is sometimes categorised as science fiction, there are no "Star Wars" type special effects. Orwell's widow Sonia, shortly before she died in 1980, gave permission for the film on condition that such effects were not used, which was a wise stipulation. Her husband's vision of the future was not a shiny, hi-tech one; Oceanian society has actually regressed technologically since the 1940s as the only new inventions the Party tolerates are those like the telescreens which make it easier for them to control the populace.
The film is noteworthy for two remarkable performances, the first from John Hurt as Winston. He is part of the Outer Party, the state's army of bureaucratic functionaries. (The other two social classes in Oceania are the Inner Party, or ruling elite, and the proles, or industrial workers). Although the Outer Party officially form the regime's middle class, they live in squalid, deprived conditions, suggesting that life for the proles must be even harsher. Winston works at the Ministry of Truth (i.e. Ministry of Propaganda) where his job is to rewrite history and official records to make them accord with the current Party line. (Orwell's intention was to satirise Stalin, who had done something very similar, particularly writing Trotsky out of Soviet history).
Winston is secretly guilty of thoughtcrime- in Oceania even thinking thoughts critical of the Party is a crime- and joins what he believes is a resistance movement, only to find that he has been betrayed by an agent provocateur. As played by Hurt, Winston is a shabby, middle-aged everyman figure, in some ways pathetic, in others heroic. Apart from Julia, he is the only character prepared to make a stand, however futile, against the evil rule of the Party.
Suzanna Hamilton (who seemed to be a promising newcomer but has since disappeared from view) is good as Julia, but the other great performance comes from Richard Burton as O'Brien, the high-ranking Inner Party member who betrays Winston and supervises the physical and mental torture which is designed to break him psychologically. (The Party's greatest desire is not only to crush dissent but also to destroy the very possibility of thoughtcrime). This was Burton's last film; he died shortly after completing it and it is a fitting end to his career. His O'Brien is patient yet remorseless, never becoming angry or raising his voice yet implacable in his belief in the Party and its right to rule.
Since the end of the Cold War, only a few years after this film was made, the political concerns which inspired Orwell's book have perhaps not seemed so relevant, at least in the West, although there still remain parts of the world, notably Kim Jong-Il's North Korea, where the system of government is not too dissimilar to that of Big Brother's Oceania. For the rest of us, however, the rise of a totalitarian superstate is perhaps not the greatest threat we have to face. (Something along the lines of Huxley's "Brave New World" may be a greater danger for our future). This does not, however, mean that the novel itself has lost its relevance and it remains one of the most eloquent denunciations of tyranny in the English language. I will not compare Radford's film to the two earlier adaptations, as it is a long time since I last saw either of them, but it strikes me as a very decent attempt to translate Orwell's eloquence into cinematic terms.
Review by James Hitchcock from the Internet Movie Database.