Director: Michael Radford
Screenplay: Michael Radford
Based on a Novel by: George Orwell
Starring: John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton, Cyril Cusack, Gregor Fisher
Running Time: 113 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is a hugely influential novel – possibly one of the most important works of science-fiction in the English language. Not only did it inspire a number of novels, films and other works of fiction since, but ideas from the book bled into real life. The concepts of Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Room 101, telescreens and others have become fairly common in modern society and they all began life in Orwell’s novel.
It’s a book that had a great impact on me too. I read it when I was maybe 16 or so, back when I read a lot as I didn’t have kids or this website draining my free time. The ideas fascinated me and the doom and gloom of the dystopian story appealed to the sulky teenager I was. Possibly because I loved the novel so much though, I’ve never seen any of the screen adaptations of the book. By all accounts, the only one worth watching is Michael Radford’s film version, which was actually released in the year 1984. When I was offered a chance to review the new HMV exclusive Premium Collection Blu-Ray of the film, I figured I’d finally give it a chance. It’d been a long time since I’d read the book anyway, so it’d be nice to refresh my memory of it.
If you don’t know the story, get yourself to a bookshop or log on to Amazon and buy yourself a copy of the book. Or if you want me to summarise the plot, it’s set in the titular year, in the province of Oceana, which is run by ‘The Party’ and led by Big Brother. They are continuously at war – at first with Eurasia, then later with Eastasia (or was it always Eastasia?). We follow Winston Smith (John Hurt), a man working for the Ministry of Truth. His job is to ‘rectify’ historical records so they are in line with Big Brother’s wishes, literally rewriting history for the Party’s benefit. He’s had enough of his meagre existence in this drab and soulless world where he and the rest of the ‘Outer Party’ have no freedom. They are constantly watched by ever-present ‘telescreens’ (basically CCTV cameras built inside TVs which play Party propaganda, relay messages and watch your every move) and any breaking of the strict rules is punishable by public humiliation and death. Any sort of art, expression and even love is forbidden. ‘Free’ time is spent worshipping Big Brother and shouting abuse at whichever leader they’re against at the time.
Smith rebels against the system by first spending time in and buying up trinkets from the proletarian areas, where there are fewer telescreens. More dangerous than this though, back in the Party compound he keeps catching the eye of a female Party member, Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) and the two form a secret, forbidden relationship. Smith hires a room in the proletarian area where they meet to make love, eat contraband food and read banned books. They’re forever aware that this can’t last though and are bound to get caught out at some point.
Michael Radford’s film version of the novel is a very faithful adaption. It’s been a long time since I read it, but nothing stood out as missing, and the messages and tone seemed similar. The oppressive atmosphere is perfectly realised too. The cinematography is drained of colour, other than in key shots, to highlight the drab lifeless existence of the inhabitants of Oceana. The production design similarly creates a dirty, decaying world that has more than a hint of Communist and Nazi stylings in the costumes, set design and particularly any posters/branding. So it’s hard to fault as an adaptation.
That’s not to say the film is perfect though. Tonally it feels almost too bleak. There never seems to be any hope or warmth present. OK, so the source material is hardly a laugh-riot, but there were hints of hope in there. In particular, I felt the scenes with Smith and Julia could have been more effective in the film. I realise the characters are aware they are doomed by starting this illicit relationship, but they don’t seem to show any enjoyment in breaking the rules, even if they know their time is fleeting. You don’t feel the love that is vital in adding impact to the final moments.
The film remains powerful though, often punishingly so. The Room 101 segment of the film towards the end is deeply unsettling in particular. The physical torture is brutal, but perhaps more disturbing is the psychological conditioning. Driving this aspect is a towering performance by Richard Burton, playing O’Brien, the ‘Upper Party’ member in charge of Smith’s punishment. John Hurt is the star though and delivers possibly the finest performance of his career, which is saying something. He looks the part too, with his shrivelled frame perfectly embodying the shell of someone who has been beaten down by a cruel system.
So it’s a hugely admirable achievement and delivers probably the definitive screen adaptation of Orwell’s classic novel. The warnings and messages of the book are still potent too. We may not have reached this state by 1984, but subtle elements of Orwell’s vision have disturbingly become a reality as our privacy becomes ever more abused and the power of the media ever stronger. However, the film is relentlessly grim, so not an easy watch and perhaps could have been more satisfying with a little more shading.
1984 is out on 13th August on triple format Blu-Ray, DVD and digital download in the UK, released by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment as part of the HMV exclusive Premium Collection. I watched the Blu-Ray version and the transfer looks and sounds great.
The only special feature is a trailer unfortunately, which is a surprise for the Premium Collection, usually reserved for special editions loaded with features.