(1984) Written and directed by Michael Radford; Based on the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell; Starring: John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton, Cyril Cusack and Gregor Fisher; Available on DVD
“Winston, you were thinking that my face is old and tired. While I talk of power, I’m unable to prevent the decay of my own body. The individual is only a cell, Winston, and the weariness of the cell is the vigor of the organism.” – O’Brien (Richard Burton)
“Julia, there is truth and there is untruth. To be in the minority doesn’t make you mad.” – Winston Smith (John Hurt)
I’m elated to participate in the Regaling About RichardBurton Blogathon, a three-day celebration of one of cinema’s most esteemed thespians. Thanks to Gill Jacob from RealWeegieMidget Reviews for hosting this blogathon, and for being so flexible on the deadline (These days, if I’m not running behind, I’m not running at all). My selection is notable for two reasons: It was Burton’s last film, and the first in my month-long retrospective, Dystopian December. What better choice than director Michael Radford’s sobering adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel?
1984’s totalitarian society is about as bleak as one might imagine. Instead of a slick future with gleaming skyscrapers, thriving citizens and sleek monorails, Oceania consists of old crumbling brick buildings amidst a barren landscape. Everything, including its residents, is in a state of entropy and decay. In the opening scene, the camera pans across a rally, filled with a sea of men and women in drab jumpsuits shouting in unison, as a united front against their sworn enemy, Eurasia (the boogeyman of the moment). The enemy is presented as a mindless being full of bloodlust, contrasted with the munificent leadership of Oceania and its virtuous citizens. A continuous stream of propaganda plays from television screens everywhere (the TV can’t be shut off or silenced), while the ubiquitous, enigmatic face of Big Brother watches over all. Roger Deakins’ cinematography sets the tone for the movie’s appearance. Everything has a grayish pall, with purposely desaturated colors that endow the film with an archival look.
Winston Smith (John Hurt), with his gaunt frame and pallid complexion, is the ideal resident for this grim, joyless world. His chronic cough (the product of some undisclosed affliction) only serves to remind us that malnutrition is rampant. He toils at the ironically named Ministry of Truth, where he endeavors with a team of co-workers in identical, cage-like cubicles, to re-invent history. After work, he chronicles his observations about Oceania’s ills in a secret diary. His life changes forever when he crosses paths with Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), one of the rally’s loudest participants. We soon learn that her apparent fervor is nothing more than a front for her quiet disobedience. They embark on an illicit relationship, finding love amidst the repressive society. Their brief romantic tryst is exemplified by a small artifact carried by Smith, a piece of coral, trapped in a glass sphere. It’s a relic from a bygone age, a thing of beauty, suspended in time and isolated from the ugliness of their present-day life.
Richard Burton captivates as Smith’s confidant-turned-interrogator, O’Brien.* Although Burton was in reportedly poor health during filming, he has a commanding presence in the film. The fact that he passed away after completing his role only adds a textural layer to his speech about the frailty of the individual. In hindsight, spoken by someone who knew that his days were numbered, he reinforces the concept that ideas are more enduring than people. Burton is so effectively chilling as O’Brien because he speaks with the conviction of someone who’s a true believer. He never raises his voice, even when he oversees Smith’s torture.** His deceptively gentle demeanor comes across as paternal, not as punishment, but from a place of love (for the state). Convincing Smith that he sees five fingers, even when he’s only holding up four, is nothing less than a vindication of the state over the individual.
* Fun Fact: Some of the names considered for the role of O’Brien were Sean Connery, Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando (who wanted far in excess of the $80,000 the filmmakers were willing to offer), Alan Bates and Paul Scofield.
** According to Burton, “The director initially wanted me to make it more sinister, but you have to be your own man: I think it’s the lines and the situation that communicate evil.” (Source: New York Times article, “A Directors Vision of Orwell’s 1984 Draws Inspiration from 1948,” by Michael Billington)
Misdirection and contradiction are the status quo in Oceania. The government spin doctors create the illusion of a land of plenty and a content populace. Meanwhile the citizens are soothed by rallies and thrown scraps, while members of the leading class bask in relative luxury. Society remains perpetually at war, while the allies and opponents continually vacillate (Eurasia is replaced by Eastasia as the enemy du jour), effectively steering the public’s attention from society’s problems. Enemies of the state are constantly invented and deleted. People are systematically added into and subtracted from society, as it suits the whims of the leadership. On a side note, this capricious element has always fascinated me. As the once lowly editor of a department newsletter, I always marveled at how an employee could be lauded one moment, only to leave the company and subsequently become an “unperson” the next, as if they never existed. Anyone who’s ever worked in a large corporation or organization will likely identify with the themes explored in 1984: the unsavory elements of groupthink, or the unquestioning acceptance of authority. Dissenting opinion is, more often than not, frowned upon, and anyone who opposes these contrary views is promptly brought into line or stamped out.
I normally don’t enjoy comparing the novel to the movie version – literature and film are distinctly different media. How one can be qualitatively “better” than another is beyond my comprehension. Much like A Clockwork Orange, so much of the book is about the warping of language, so in the process of transitioning from a medium of words to a visual medium, we merely get a sampling of the novel’s double-speak (“unperson,” “thought criminal,” “doubleplusgood,” etc…). The movie only scratches the surface of the written word and the innermost thoughts of Smith, but what we get is a visual distillation of the world that George Orwell envisioned. The true test of a film adaptation is if it captures the spirit of the book, and in this case, it succeeds admirably.
1984 seems more prescient every day, as our society becomes more dependent on technology to do the thinking for us, and we gradually accept the twisting of language and facts. It’s not an easy watch, nor should it be. It’s a film destined to remain embedded in our consciousness and stir debate. How free are we when we so readily and blindly accept so much as fact, without critical scrutiny? The more we permit unchecked information to become ingrained in our culture, our world becomes more aligned with Orwell’s vision of distorted reality. This unrelenting, grim vision of society is more than a cautionary tale, but a window into the darker recesses of humanity.