This is my favourite book ever, so I expected big things from a film adaptation. But of course, I knew that nothing could live up to the book; films rarely do match up to their written counterparts. I love all the thematic layers to this George Orwell story, which could feasibly be given a new life on the screen, but I just wasn’t hopeful for the actual aesthetics of it all, given the (rather apt) 1984 release date. This is one of a small handful of films which I have always said needs, and deserves an update, and it is something of an ambition of mine that I could one day be a part of bringing this beautifully dark story to life once again. For now though, this version will more than suffice.
Based on the famous novel, written in 1947-48 by George Orwell, we are transported to a dystopian future where independent thought, emotion and action is punished severely. The world has been split into very distinct boundaries, with Oceania branded the supreme global power, under the watchful, oppressive eyes of the mythical “Big Brother”. Winston Smith (John Hurt) despises the regime which dictates his life, but of course, cannot act on such frustration, nor can he allow these thoughts to betray his passive exterior of seemingly relentless loyalty. But when he meets Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), all the consequences which come with thought crimes and sexual activity don’t seem to matter anymore; anything to feel love again. Winston and Julia may have faith in the idea that rebellion will one day overthrow the surveillance state and the corruption and lies of the totalitarian government, but “Big Brother” can always see you, and he knows your deepest, darkest fears.
John Hurt played the central role of Winston really well. From a solemn, meek, almost spineless servant; to a rebellious, carefree and passionate man; and back deeper than ever before, to a broken, desperate soul. His character goes on quite the journey, and Hurt really impressed me with the way he depicted the many stages of Winston Smith. Opposite him, Suzanna Hamilton is rather effective as a young lady who appears so ordinary and unspectacular to us, but who in that world, and to a man longing for love and change, would be so alluring and endearing as to risk your life for. Her cold, determined rebellion is something to be admired and is conveyed powerfully by Hamilton. Richard Burton is the only other character who carries any real significance in the plot, and he’s certainly one to watch out for, delivering a stirring performance to say the least.
Despite the obvious dated appearance of the film, the aesthetics are actually pretty interesting. The cold, metallic palette of many of the scenes is perfectly juxtaposed against greens and blues in the woodland retreat where Winston and Julia develop their relationship. I don’t think a modern remake would need to drastically change anything, per se, rather just improve and build on what director Michael Radford has put in place here. The main thing which I envisage in my mind when I consider how this film looks to how it could be done now, is the drab, dystopian setting, which doesn’t get the attention it deserves in this effort. Instead, there is more of a focus on character and emotion (or lack of it) and I enjoyed the regularity of intense close ups and uncomfortable viewing this created.
This film took an overwhelmingly artistic approach with the portrayal of this classic story, and I still can’t quite work out whether that is a positive, or whether it slightly hindered the experience in a way. The pace of the film is the main reason I doubt the effectiveness of such an approach, with a slow, methodical build up pretty much all the way through, both conveying the tightly structured atmosphere of the world within the film, and at the same time reflecting Winston’s own mundane existence. When circumstances change as we head towards the conclusion of the film, there is still no injection of energy though – instead the steady, passive narrative is altered ever so slightly into a more painful, uncomfortable torture. I do actually intend this to be a positive criticism, believe it or not, and I must say the climactic scene where Winston is faced by his greatest fear is horrifyingly intense and damaging to watch, with a claustrophobic edge which makes it delightfully unbearable. I just can’t help but feel that the film could have benefited from a slight turn of pace at some point.
Overall, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is probably about as good as I had anticipated. The weaknesses I predicted were very much justified, but they didn’t necessarily damage the experience all too much. And the film remained perfectly faithful to what is, in my opinion, one of the greatest stories ever written. I would say it’s more of a challenging watch than I had expected though; it’s a film which does require your attention and the unreserved submission of your emotions. But it’s worth it, you have my word, and my word can be trusted a hell of a lot more than that of Big Brother.
Director: Michael Radford
Starring: John Hurt, Suzanna Hamilton, Richard Burton