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NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: The last theatrical-film adaptation of George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ was made, fittingly, in 1984 — although it wasn’t released until early 1985. I was somewhat lukewarm to the film, as you will see in my review, published in the Deseret News on March 15, 1985, but now the Criterion Collection has seen fit to give it a notable Blu-ray special edition some 35 years later for re-evaluation.

John Hurt seems perfectly cast in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” as Winston Smith, George Orwell’s hero (of sorts) in his classic novel of the same title.

And as O’Brien, one of the privileged class, Richard Burton gives a fine performance, low-key and controlled, and appropriately threatening. (It would be his last before his untimely death last year.)

Furthermore, the bleak atmosphere of this film, from the washed out color to the stark set design to the depiction of a starving, heavily rationed working-class, all seems right on-target.

Why then was I so unmoved by most of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”?

The answer would seem to lie more in a talky, redundant script than in the approach to that script. Either way, however, writer-director Michael Radford must take the blame.

Perhaps there is such a thing as making a film too stark in its portrayal of a stark subject. Certainly the book is unremittingly horrific. But the book is also an exciting page-turner. The movie, particularly in its middle section, may well have you looking at your watch.

     

Richard Burton, left, John Hurt, 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'

The set design is particularly interesting, since Radford has avoided the sci-fi look of most current movies that broach this subject. No “Star Wars” or “Road Warrior” this. In fact, he and designer Allan Cameron seem to have taken an approach of which Orwell himself might have approved in 1949 when the book was first published.

The film’s “look” is an odd mix of the antique and the futuristic, dark and dank and rather dirty. It’s a post-World War II image of bombed-out Britain, a concrete swamp that’s been left out in the rain too long and has begun to rot.

Winston Smith is just one of the many workers who stare at the big and little screens that seem to be everywhere, and which are apparently two-way. Big Brother is watching, and there isn’t any place to run or hide.

The populace is culturally, spiritually and physically deprived beyond reason, and the crowds of people cheering the propaganda spewed forth fro the huge monitors they watch together represent the ultimate brainwashed society.

In his heart and mind, however, Smith isn’t just another mindless piece of meat following along in the cattle line, turning his soul over to the government. (And, of course, no one else is, either, really.)

One day he receives a note from Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), a woman he has noticed across various crowded rooms. The note is simple enough: “I love you.”

Since, however, love is forbidden in this sterile society, Smith wonders if she is setting him up or whether this could really lead to something. He cannot resist.

     

Initially, their relationship is hard, cold sex. But then it leads to something considered by the government much more insidious — intellectual stimulation and discussion. It is inevitable that the dreaded “Thought Police” will catch up with them.

The final third of the film concentrates on Smith being tortured by O’Brien, as the latter calmly explains why Smith should see five fingers, though only four are held up to him, when he is told there are five.

Despite the success of the message, however, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is so cold, so bleak and so unrelenting that it may well turn its audience off instead of making it think. That is made very evident when, despite the terrifying, graphic nature of the torture scenes toward the film’s end, they prove to be a kind of relief from the stale sameness of everything that has gone before.

The film is also more than a little pompous, talky and redundant.

There is much to admire here and I liked a lot of things about “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” But the film as a whole was a bit too distant and removed to get involved enough with the plight of Winston Smith. And that’s too bad.

The controversial Eurythmics score seems to work well enough in the context of the film here, and some of the original score by Dominic Muldowney remains. It all seems very effective in its usage. (The Eurythmics’ “Sex Crimes” number is heard under the darkened screen as a kind of overture.)

There seems little question that this is the kind of film destined to gain a cult following. It’s good enough for that, but I had hoped for something that might be “Double-plus good,” as Newspeak might put it. Interesting but as cold as its subject.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is rated R for violence, sex and quite a lot of nudity, though it is perhaps the least erotic nudity ever put on the screen.