Nineteen Eighty-Four Review

It’s the year 1984 and Britain is part of a superpower called Oceania, ruled over by dictator Big Brother. Oceania is permanently at war, though the opponent changes from Eurasia to Eastasia and back again. Telescreens watch your every move, and pump out propaganda twenty-four hours a day. Winston Smith (John Hurt) works at the Ministry of Truth, whose job it is to rewrite the news to remove “unpersons” and to change history as it suits the ruling Elite. Then he meets Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), who seems to be a sworn celibate and member of the Anti Sex League, but who in reality is rebelling against the state. Winston and Julia fall in love, but their rebellion has not gone unnoticed…

George Orwell wanted to call his final novel Nineteen Forty-Eight, after the year in which he wrote it, but his publisher vetoed that. So Orwell reversed the last two digits of the year. Hence the title, which along with other phrases – Big Brother, Newspeak, Room 101 – has passed into the language. Whether Nineteen Eighty-Four is Orwell’s best novel is a matter of opinion: some people no doubt prefer the novella-length allegorical fable Animal Farm, others the earlier comic novels (one of which, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, has been filmed). However, there’s little doubt that, along with Animal Farm, it’s Orwell’s most influential work and the one on which his reputation is likely to stand. Nigel Kneale adapted it for the BBC in 1954 for a live-broadcast version starring Peter Cushing (one of the earliest British TV productions to survive, as a film recording), which caused controversy for its “sadistic” content. That version is due to be released on DVD in November 2004. Michael Anderson directed a feature-film version in 1956 which is very hard to see nowadays: rather like the 1954 Halas and Batchelor animated film of Animal Farm, it twisted Orwell’s message by giving the story an upbeat ending.

So the year 1984 rolled around, and inevitably there was much interest in Orwell and his work. This culminated in the production of a new film version of Nineteen Eighty-Four – like the novel, the film spells out its title in words rather than in digits. Once the year was over, there was a sense that the novel had passed its sell-by date, which has caused Michael Radford’s film to be somewhat undervalued. But science fiction does not usually mean to prophesy. Nineteen Eighty-Four, along with Aldous Huxley’s almost as influential Brave New World, belongs to the part of the genre that sets out to warn. In many ways it has been prescient: the “proles” kept pacified by a diet of porn and junk TV (dealt with more in the novel than the film), the use of language to slant truth and meaning, the dangers of dictatorship. The novel remains as relevant as it ever did, and Radford’s film deserves re-evaluation.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a very well-made, though inevitably downbeat, film. It shows that it is possible to make a film aimed at intelligent adults and still sell it to a wide audience. Radford, who wrote the script with some additions from Jonathan Gems, is faithful to Orwell, though inevitably compresses certain episodes. (The forty-odd pages of political textbook, a notorious sticking point for many readers of the novel, is reduced to a single shot of Winston reading the book in bed.) I also appreciated that Radford felt able to let the viewer infer certain important details without sledgehammering: note how he conveys Winston’s fear of rats by means of a dream/memory sequence showing his mother’s body crawling with the beasts. Given the general prudishness of much mainstream American and British cinema then and now, Radford treats the love story with a welcome frankness. If anything, mainstream cinema is even coyer about sex now than it was then, but even in 1984 you were more likely to see full-frontal (female) nudity in continental films that played in arthouses rather than in a wide-release new British film.

Radford directs with considerable confidence, belying the fact that this was only his second feature. (His first was a Channel Four film, Another Time, Another Place, which featured an award-winning performance from Phyllis Logan, who turns up here as the voice of the telescreen announcer.) It’s a pity that his subsequent work has been so uneven: ambitious but turgid flop White Mischief, then up again after a gap of seven years with Il Postino, made in Italy, then down again with B Monkey (a misbegotten film that he took over) and Dancing at the Blue Iguana. Roger Deakins, who had shot Another Time, Another Place, was near the beginning of a very distinguished career as a cinematographer. In Nineteen Eighty-Four he devised a “bleach bypass” process which removed bright colours: the emphasis is on greys, browns, the blues of the uniforms worn by both men and women, with only the green of the grass and leaves in Winston’s dreams and memories and his trysts with Julia standing out. This effect was more pronounced in the cinema; homeviewing versions tone up the colour somewhat. Allan Cameron’s production design takes its cue from the novel being a vision of its time: the sets are dominated by 40s tech, metal and bakelite, with dials on the phones.

The classic-style music score by Dominic Muldowney is another plus point. However, in an effort to make the soundtrack album more commercial, the producers included several songs by The Eurythmics against Radford’s wishes. (Apparently Annie Lennox makes a cameo appearance during the Two Minute Hate sequence, but I haven’t been able to spot her.) The Eurythmics’ contributions aren’t bad in themselves, just inappropriate, and being cutting-edge 80s synth pop, date the film very badly. Perhaps thankfully, although their names remain in the opening credits, all their contributions bar one have been removed for this DVD release. The one that remains, “Julia”, begins partway through the closing credits. Incidentally, this DVD, and the music, stops abruptly after the last credit. The cinema prints continued the music over a black screen for several minutes, which explains some sources giving the running time as between 115 and 118 minutes.

Winston Smith is one of a long line of John Hurt victim roles. He plays it as well as he always does, but it’s not a slight to say that he’s done this sort of thing many times before or since. There were a few years in the mid 80s when Suzanna Hamilton seemed to turn up in every other upscale British film, with an excursion to Hollywood for Out of Africa. In the last decade or so, she’s been seen more often on television. Her performance as Julia is a little wooden and a little unfortunately head-girlish, but in her defence she hasn’t been able to add anything to a role that was two-dimensional in the original novel. The same can be said of O’Brien (Richard Burton), but in this case you can say that the actor does add something that isn’t there in novel or script. Burton is clearly unwell – and he died during production with the film being dedicated to him – but he adds layers of world-weariness and even humanity to a character basically there to put the case for totalitarianism and torture to enforce conformity. He was an actor who could chew the scenery with the best of them, and no doubt wasted much of his talent with bad films and drink, but his performance here is effective for its restraint. The rest of the cast are efficient in smaller roles. Gregor Fisher is fifth billed, but you sense that most of his role ended up on the cutting room floor, though he gets a fine scene in prison late on.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a very good adaptation of a classic work of twentieth-century science fiction and it’s one of the highlights of Michael Radford’s erratic career.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is transferred to DVD anamorphically in its correct ratio of 1.85:1. This dual-layer DVD contains only an average-length film and trailer, but the space it takes up (about 7Gb) is explained by a healthy bitrate, never much short of 8Mbps and frequently over. This is a very good transfer, though some shots are a little soft. I suspect that’s due to the original materials. Skintones are convincing (though pale – tanned bodies would not be convincing in this film), blacks solid and shadow detail good. There’s a little bit of artefacting on some metallic walls, and some minor scratching and speckling in a couple of shots, but nothing very distracting.

In 1984, Dolby Stereo soundtracks were common, but were still two or three years away from being ubiquitous. Films were still made in mono then, and Nineteen Eighty-Four was one of them, and mono it remains on this DVD. It’s as professional a sound mix as you might expect, with dialogue clearly audible and sound effects and music all well balanced. Some might suggest that sequences such as the Two Minutes Hate and an explosion at the 53-minute mark would benefit from a 5.1 remix, but I’m not going to do that. Radford and his colleagues made the decision to make the film in mono at the time, regardless of what he might have done had he made it nowadays, and I’m not going to endorse a remix unless it’s approved by the director. There are dubbed soundtracks and menu options in three other languages, plus a range of subtitles. There are sixteen chapter stops. The DVD is encoded for both Regions 2 and 4.

This may be a MGM release, but it’s a step up from a lot of recent back-catalogue discs not only in having text menus instead of symbolic ones, and in actually having an extra! Admittedly that extra is just the (American) theatrical trailer, which is anamorphic 1.85:1 and runs 2:13. With The Eurythmics’s “Sexcrime” much in evidence, this tries to sell the film as much more of a thriller than it actually is. The picture is darker and more contrasty, with at least one splice and a fair amount of telecine wobble. No subtitles are provided for the trailer. It’s a pity that no-one could have recorded a commentary, or provided some information on Orwell and his novel.

With the Nigel Kneale version coming out on DVD soon, it’s a good time to re-evaluate this film twenty years on. It stands up very well, and this DVD does a fine job of presenting it, though some more extras might well have been welcome.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 11:45:44

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