1984 1984 Criterion Collection Blu ray
Published in 1948, George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare remains an eerily prescient warning as we prepare to close out the
second decade of the twenty-first century.
For those who may’ve slept through English Lit, the novel centers around protagonist Winston Smith, a low-ranking Outer
Party functionary in the Ingsoc (English Socialists) Party. The fascist regime controls every aspect of life through its perpetual
surveillance and draconian rules. Smith works for the Ministry of Truth, altering historical documents and media reports to
promote the Party’s image and agenda. Disillusioned with the regime, Winston pursues the most heinous of criminal activities: free
thought. He records his feelings and perceptions in a hidden diary. When dark-haired Julia catches his eye and passes him a note saying “I love you,” he is swept up in clandestine journey of sex, rebellion and self-expression.
Winston is drawn to O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party whom he believes is secretly part of the Brotherhood, a transgressive underground organization. O’Brien shares a copy of Emmanuel Goldstein’s manifesto against the state, and Winston shares it with Julia. Both are outed as traitors. O’Brien (who was never part of the Brotherhood) spends months torturing and brainwashing Winston, until the broken and beaten man succumbs to Party control. He turns against Julia to preserve his own life. The book ends with Winston now a compliant, emotionless puppet of the government, cowed into submission, devoted to the Party and Big Brother.
In 1983, following the success of his film Another Time, Another Place (1983), director Michael Radford was looking for another project. When he discovered that no one was prepping an adaptation of Orwell’s book for the novel’s titular year, Radford jumped in with both feet. He completed the screenplay in three weeks.
Radford’s 1984 brings the bleak vision to life in ways that are at times poignant, dangerous, oppressive and frighteningly real. John Hurt (Alien, 1979; Hellboy, 2004) gives a nuanced performance as Winston. Outwardly, he is the obedient Party cog. But on the inside, he enjoys the thrill of hiding his ideas from the Thought Police and his forbidden trysts with Julia. As he suffers through O’Brien’s tortures, we watch him deteriorate before our eyes. Only 43 at the time of filming, Hurt’s battered looks make him seem much older, creating a somewhat uncomfortable predatory tone to his relationship with Julia (Suzanna Hamilton—Brimstone & Treacle, 1982—who was 23).
Julia represents freedom, choice, personal destiny. She knows what she is risking by being with Winston (just as he does). But where he is guarded and paranoid, she is devil-may-care—the unbreakable human spirit that always hopes and always loves. Once the couple are arrested, Julia disappears from the final third of the film (the torture sessions), leaving the viewer to wonder where she is and what she is—or isn’t—saying. She appears with Winston one final time at the end, each dismissing the other as just “brother” and “sister,” proof that the system has broken them and rebuilt them in its own image.
Radford wanted Marlon Brando for the role of O’Brien. But since all he could offer was $80,000, Brando’s agent informed Radford that “Marlon Brando doesn’t get out of bed for less than one million.” Instead the part went to Richard Burton (Exorcist II: The Heretic, 1977), who brings gravity to every scene just by the tone of his voice. Since he has no action scenes, he carries the drama on his shoulders through exposition alone, which would ordinarily bring a film to a screeching halt. But he imbues O’Brien’s steely Party loyalty with a sense of curiosity—as if anxious to dissect Winston’s thought process and understand why anyone would willingly rebel against the ruling authority.
Radford made the creative choice to set 1984, not in 1984, but in post-war London. It isn’t so much a story of the here-and-now, but one that looks back, pondering what would have happened to England had Hitler succeeded in his maniacal designs. A sense of industrialized doom presses into every scene. The color palette is limited and dull, consisting mainly of grays, blues and browns. Even scenes depicting a sunlit, grassy field feel watered down, as if this vestigial hope is nothing more than a fading dream.
To say that Radford’s 1984 mirrors today’s Western society is a massive understatement. One cannot see images of Party gatherings without thinking of extreme political rallies and jingoist nationalism. Winston’s job rewriting history and creating (fake) news hits too close to home. In both novel and film, Newspeak is a language implemented by the state to eradicate words associated with freedom, rebellion and self-expression. The meaning of words change to suit the whims of the Party.
As always, The Criterion Collection gives us the best. 1984 is presented in a new 4K digital restoration that was personally supervised by crew cinematographer Roger Deakins. The transfer pulls even the tiniest detail into focus. There is so much to see now that some scenes are a nearly overwhelming barrage of information (the Ministry of Truth offices, the second-hand shop where Winston purchases old artifacts, the Party viewscreens that drone in the background). Don’t be surprised to find yourself pausing the film just to drink in the minutiae.
Accompanying the stunning look are two separate scores, one by composer Dominic Muldowney, the other by the Eurythmics. Radford originally wanted David Bowie, but after The Thin White Duke said he planned to do “organic music” for the film, Radford went in another direction. Both scores are excellent, and each brings a slightly different feel to the film.
Two informative but brief on-camera interviews—Michael Radford, Roger Deakins—are included, as is an interview with David Ryan, author of George Orwell on Screen. Rounding out the disc are behind-the-scenes footage, a trailer, and a fold-out poster with a fine essay by author and performer A.L. Kennedy.
Perpetual war. Government surveillance. Redefining language. Sanctioned torture. Altering history. Fear of the ‘other.’ Elites living off the backs of the proletariat. As the United States deals with the most contentious, deceptive and questionable administration in its history, and as the U.K. struggles with the confusion and consternation of Brexit, Orwell has become the literary Nostradamus. And Radford’s 1984 reinforces what we see and hear every day—at least, what we think we see and hear.