April 26, 2012

The new film version of 1984 is a solid, well-conceived adaptation of George Orwell’s novel. It must have been a tremendously daunting project to adapt one of the most famous books of the century.

It had happened once before—in 1956, with Edmond O’Brien as a rather incongruously well-fed Winston Smith. But that version has been tied up in Orwell’s estate for years, and movie rights for a remake have been similarly locked away.

Somehow, British producer Simon Perry cajoled the rights from Orwell’s heirs, just in time to start filming during the exact time described in the novel (April through June, 1984). Unfortunately, this meant that the film wouldn’t make it into general release until 1985.

But here it is—and despite the apparent anachronism of the title, 1984 seems just as relevant as ever. The story of one man and one woman being “thought criminals” in a totalitarian state controlled by the omnipresent image of Big Brother is chillingly suited to today’s latest-breaking news stories.

Adaptor-director Michael Radford is quite faithful to Orwell’s vision, even to the point of including the phrases that echo through the novel. The newspeak of Oceania is intact, with its sexcrimes, doublethink, and Party slogans, as well as the children’s rhyme that haunts Winston Smith: “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clements….”

Radford also recreates Orwell’s physical description. This is a grimy, depressed industrial jungle, with telescreens looming over the scurrying citizens and announcers keeping up a steady drone of Party chatter. Radford’s visual scheme includes a bleached-out color that accurately conveys the spiritual blankness of most of the inhabitants of what was once known as London.

Radford’s casting is also true to the book. Certainly one would be hard-pressed to find a more fitting Winston Smith than John Hurt, whose sunken face suggests a lifetime of suffering. Remember, Hurt is the guy who was able to give humanity to the Elephant Man through his voice alone, so his deadened look is an appropriate counterpoint.

Smith is joined in sexcrime by Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), a fellow worker. Their nude scenes are deliberately used by Radford as a vivid contrast to the uniformity of clothing and appearance in the other parts of their world. Big Brother seeks to eliminate sex because it distracts people from the greater good of serving the Party.

It’s very nice that the late Richard Burton (to whose memory the film is dedicated) was able to end his film career—one of the most wildly uneven of any major actor—with something of merit. He is fine as O’Brien, the Party official who tortures Smith into embracing the “love” of Big Brother.

Somehow, this interesting movie never gets really great, and it may be due to is very faithfulness; Orwell’s book is not unusually well-suited to the movies, and the relentless horror of it all becomes numbing after a while. But it gets its point across—as Winston Smith says, “The important thing is not staying alive—the important thing is staying human.” The movie believes in that most insidious thoughtcrime, and it has never seemed truer.

First published in the Herald, February 26, 1985

I caught a few minutes of this on cable recently and it looked good; Burton was chilling. It might be hard to ever get the novel right, because it is such an unforgettable reading experience; one feels superbly illicit just opening the book and committing a thoughtcrime. I was very interested in Radford then, because I’d liked his film Another Time, Another Place; he would find real success with Il Postino but then kind of fall away from prominence.


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