Michael Radford finally delivered the Orwell adaptation we all deserved. But was it, perhaps, just a little too reverential? It’s no coincidence that Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1984 ½), released the following year, entirely eclipsed Nineteen Eighty-Four while dealing with many of the same themes (albeit taking its swipes more satirically, by way of an attack on the suffocating bureaucratic state). Radford’s film deliberately delivers an Orwellian future as seen from the era of the novel’s release, give or take the odd helicopter, and is visually striking in its desaturated lack of glory (courtesy of ace DP Roger Deakins) as well as nigh-on perfect in its casting. And yet, the take away is that it’s all a little dry and sterile.
There’s a solid argument to be made that this is in the nature of the cold, harsh, grim regimentation of the text itself, but I do wonder if Radford, who would go on to be both derided (for White Mischief) and praised (for Il Postino) might have been better cast as one of ad auteurs then making their mark on the era (perhaps even Ridders, who had so impacted with his Apple ad a year before).
As it is, Nineteen Eighty-Four rather comes across as an ideal accompaniment to a school set text. It’s only real nod to its era of production are the ill-fitting and at odds with the director’s intent Eurythmics interludes on the soundtrack (their Sex Crime has not aged well, as ill-conceived as envisaging a tie-in single to, say, Platoon or The Pianist). David Bowie did meet with Radford and backer Virgin, apparently, but it seems his ideas weren’t considered commercial enough by Branson (or by another report, he wanted too much money).
Winston: (Reading from Goldstein’s book) The war is not meant to be won. It is meant to be continuous.
David Ehrenstein in The Film Yearbook Volume 4 felt the period flavour was essential to understanding Winston, to “cut through decades of social absorption and return to the work at its root”. He considered the use of real locations gave the adaptation the flavour of an alt-universe depiction of that year, while keen to draw attention to instances of hate speech and rewriting of national friends and foes that give it topicality at the time of its release. The periodicity may have been a consequence of the straightjacketing decreed upon any interpretation (according to Dorian Lynskey, this prohibited the “Star Wars or 2001: A Space Odyssey genre of science-fiction”). Hence, in Radford’s words “a parallel universe: a 1984 envisaged in 1948”.
Parsons: Thoughtcrime is so insidious. It just creeps up on you.
I’ll freely admit that reading the novel after the fact of this film, I instantly imagine Hurt as Winston. The picture scrupulously translates the page in terms of surroundings: the post-war dilapidation and decay, slag, ash and clinker, with a dose of Nazi propaganda reels and some neat logos (not a million miles from Doctor Who’s dystopian riff the following year, Vengeance on Varos). The inclusion of a voiceover allows a degree of retention of the novel’s interiority and access to Winston, although Hurt’s presence instantly adds a layer of poetic futility (on top of which, the actor could have been anywhere from forty to sixty, and looks every stage of that span at various points – and occasionally, at his worst and under most duress, like Ren Hoek).
Winston: Do you think the resistance is real?
Julia: No. None of it’s real.
There’s never any doubt that Smith will capitulate, or that O’Brien (Richard Burton, in his last role) will be unbending in his resolve to break him. And yet Burton simultaneously carries perfectly the character’s perverse air of kindness. He is marvellously subdued, measured, and immaculate in a tailored boiler suit from Savile Row. Suzanna Hamilton is similarly strong as Julia. Also notable are Cyril Cusack as Mr Charrington (unlike the novel, he is not a younger man playing old), Gregor Fisher as Parsons, Roger Lloyd Pack as a waiter and Hugh Walters as a lecturer (Bob Flagg is an imposing Big Brother, and definitely the most iconic).
O’Brien: You do not exist.
While Radford is studious in documenting Winston’s grubby mental breakdown, I can’t help feel he stints on the novel’s philosophical core. O’Brien rebukes Winston with “You do not exist” but the novel’s engrossing treatise on that, how “We control life at all levels” isn’t sufficiently relayed. True, we have seen Winston editing the past – this is an environment where this a constant, ongoing reset, where the facts of yesterday, such as who Oceania are at war with, will not be true today, and yet today’s truth has always been so – and Julia expressing her view that the hope Winston invests in is a fake. But the underpinnings, the explanation given by O’Brien that the Inner Party and Big Brother control reality because they control the mind (and by extension, the stars in the sky) is sadly absent. (It’s also curious that Winston doesn’t bring Julia to see O’Brien, and so the crucial exchange regarding what they would be willing to do in the name of resistance is absent; no acid in children’s faces here).
O’Brien: There are thoughtcriminals who maintain that the resistance is not real. Believe me, Winston. It is very real.
David Icke has it that Orwell, rather like Huxley, was privy to the plans of the elite, but that he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four as an exposé rather than a piece of predictive programming (in contrast to Fabian Society member Huxley). That may be the case. There are also various pieces out there arguing Orwell was a freemason and Nineteen Eighty-Four amounted to a text on the masonic plan (complete with a pyramidal organisation of society).
I did idly wonder if, given the oddity and illogic of an envisaged totalitarian regime that leaves eighty percent of the population free(-ish) to roam, if the Inner and Outer Parties might not also be reflections of secret societies or masonic hierarchy rather than just a literal warning (which does not necessarily place the Inner Party the top of the triangle). Hence Winston, a lower-tier individual, must pass through initiation (face death/his greatest fear and be reborn) as an Inner Party test. He fails, of course, and is left passive and obedient, uselessly indoctrinated. Like the proles, who are too stupid to ever rise up in revolt.
Alternatively, Nineteen Eighty-Four as a piece of predictive programming would merely reflect the words of O’Brien, that everything placed before the individual has been allowed by the Inner Party (Elite), and that opposition is either created, controlled, or doesn’t even exist at all.
There’s a degree of emphasis on Orwell’s invented language here, in contrast to earlier versions, but it’s rather as if it doesn’t stick, namechecked but lacking consistent application throughout. Radford makes effective use of Smith’s dreamscape, via the door opening onto verdant countryside (a similar motif would also be utilised for Sam Lowry’s flights of fantasy in Brazil).
One might argue, ironically considering its aesthetic harshness and close-quartered rats, that Radford allows for more hope here than in previous versions. He holds off on Winston completing his 2+2= (also unfinished in various published editions of the novel), suggesting a glimmer of hope for Winston’s mind – including the 5 would have been “too dark. It doesn’t speak to the human spirit anymore”. There’s also the ambiguity of Smith’s voice saying “I love you” that leads him to well up with tears; it might be interpreted as feeling for Big Brother, following the broadcast, but it could equally be his realisation of the loss of Julia.