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`Nineteen Eighty-Four' --a forceful new version

If you slid through the last 12 months with feel-good movies like ``All of Me'' and inspirational yarns like ``Places in the Heart,'' the new year may not let you off so easily. Early releases are tending toward the grim side, and none more so than the British adaptation of George Orwell's classic ``Nineteen Eighty-Four'' -- shot during the same months (April through June) and in the same city (London) that were the setting of the original story. Although many of the novel's best passages are satires of midcentury social and political failings, Orwell stresses bitterness and scorn over lighter satirical tactics like irony and sarcasm. The new film version does the same, anchoring its images in a limited range of moods: dour pessimism to outright horror, mostly, with a few glimpses of romantic beauty that make the prevailing ugliness all the more oppressive.

What makes the result worth watching are the excellence of its performances, the dark resonance of its camera style, and its implicit message that the real world hasn't done badly in comparison with Orwell's vision -- although there are enough echoes of present-day conditions to remind us that Big Brother's threat hasn't vanished just because the year 1984 has come and gone.

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John Hurt plays the hero, Winston Smith, also known as 6079 Smith W. He spends his days rewriting history at the Ministry of Truth, then trudges across a blasted-out cityscape to his rotten home in what was once Britain and is now Airstrip One, the capital of Oceania. Two-way television screens monitor his every move, except when he scrunches into a corner of his room and records his thoughts in a forbidden diary.

With such a miserable life, it's little wonder he becomes a ``thought criminal'' with ideas about human freedom -- which prompt him into a felonious (and explicitly filmed) love affair with Julia, another maverick. They are caught when their friends turn out to be spies, and like all enemies of the state, Winston undergoes torture to ``heal'' his errant mind. The ending is as grim as you'd expect in a world where Big Brother holds all the physical and mental aces.

Michael Radford, the writer and director of ``Nineteen Eighty-Four,'' vividly depicts the swarming Oceania masses as well as the hesitant rebels, Winston and Julia, who feel both guilt and bravado over the sense of outrage that drives them to their defiant acts. The brooding atmosphere is enhanced by Roger Deakins's remarkable photography, which gives the film a grainy, almost metallic look that ideally matches its settings and events.

The performances are first rate, starting with Mr. Hurt as the frail hero and the late Richard Burton as O'Brien, an Inner Party honcho who masks evil with dignity as he presides over Winston's horrific torture sessions. Suzanna Hamilton gives Julia a matter-of-fact sensuality that precisely suits her character, and Cyril Cusack is memorable as a deceptively harmless antique dealer who crosses Winston's path. The rest of the cast is similarly deft, right down to the smallest roles.

``Nineteen Eighty-Four'' was also filmed in the mid-'50s by director Michael Anderson, who (by choice or by command of the producers) toned down the story's urgency with political disclaimers and provided an alternate ending for distributors who didn't like Orwell's bleak finale. Taking advantage of today's tolerance for on-screen bleakness and violence, the new version makes no such compromises. It's hard to watch at times, but its force is undeniable.

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