Presumably, most know the premise of George Orwell's 1984 - the story which takes place in an alternative past in the year 1984. Britain is now known as Airstrip, one is part of a supercontinent called Oceania under control of the party. It is a totalitarian state, focussed on the control of a population through surveillance and the cult of personality surrounding Big Brother, the Party's leader and figurehead. It is a world of constant war between Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, leaving Britain a grey, decrepit wasteland.
Within this world is Winston Smith (John Hurt), a low-level sensor working in the Ministry of Truth. During his day job, he rewrites history and obliterates nonpersons to fit the party line. While outwardly being a productive member of the party he has a secret diary where he commits thoughtcrime. He resists and hates the regime. More than that he also begins an affair with another party member, Julia (Suzanna Hamilton).
1984 is a famous story, most know how it goes, and how it ends. It has been a hallmark of popular culture and along with Orwell's other novels has contributed to its own "Orwellian" genre of dystopian fiction. Other media make reference to the issues and concepts brought up in the book; like doublethink, newspeak, censorship and surveillance. The film adaptation by Michael Radford and starring John Hurt and Richard Burton is equally as impactful, after all it was the basis for one of the most successful advertisement campaigns of all time. But the film is over 30 years old, so does it still hold up after all these years?
Thankfully, Michael Radford - who also penned the film - has given us a very faithful adaptation of the book's storyline. Naturally, he cannot adapt the whole story but Radford does a great job in fitting the most important parts of the novel into his movie. He then proceeds to cast his spin on the narrative taught in literature classes. Radford lends an ambiguity in the film that is less present in the book making the events unfolding even more heartbreaking and poignant. He takes this rather straightforward story and elevates it into a dreamlike meta exploration.
This is helped by the 1984’s visuals which are equally as iconic as the story. The bombed out buildings, grey and dilapidated apartments and equally dour fashion speaks to the age and the situation. Legendary cinematographer, Roger Deakins, shot the film stupendously, conveying the slowly crumbling society. Deakins desaturated the colour of the film as the process of bleach bypassing proved far too expensive. Despite this, the film does not feel flat. There is still a richness despite the grey surroundings. The scenes that deal with crowds of citizens are perfect examples. They present us with a genuinely unsettling vision of Oceania, which is especially true during the two-minute hate sections where citizens curse and scream at those the state deems enemies. It is also evident in the execution, where the darkest parts of humanity are unveiled for all to see; the dark barely hiding the citizens' rage and hate drummed up by propaganda.
This, of course, would all mean nothing if we did not have the towering performances that we do. John Hurt provides the perfect Winston Smith. He is a tragic figure drawn into a game that was beyond his control yet Hurt lends Winston a dignity that we horrifically sympathise with. It is, however, the softly-spoken O'Brien that Richard Burton plays with a terrifying subtlety that steals the show. 1984 is a wonder for the eyes and ears, something of dreamlike majesty that adapts and elevates a classic of modern fiction thanks to striking visuals and top-notch acting.
This is a Premium Collection release so you are purchasing the Blu-ray, DVD and digital download. Apart from that however though the version is very spare in terms of extras. The only being the theatrical trailer, which feels like wasted potential. 1984 is a classic film, and the disc could have explored all of its influences and production history. It could have also covered the life of George Orwell and his process in writing. As it is, this presentation of the film seems to be fighting a losing battle with the ability to stream or look for alternative releases. The high definition transfer is still excellent, however, as the film retains a tactile quality. You can smell the dust in the air, feel the chill and damp in the wind, it has a slightly analogue feel, a grainy look that accentuates the dour tone and visuals of a film all about degradation.
Despite the film's age, 1984 is still a classic piece of cinema. This thanks in no small part to the performances from Hurt, Burton and other members of the cast. That is not to mention Roger Deakins' remarkable visual flair. While it would have been better for the release to have more extras, it still well the purchase especially for fans of Hurt or Deakins.