****/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B
starring John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton, Gregor Fisher
written and directed by Michael Radford
by Walter Chaw George Orwell's 1984 is a fabulously paranoid fantasy in which everything predicted has not only come to pass but proven mild in comparison. Orwell himself failed to foresee how Big Brother's intrusion into all aspects of our lives would be a privilege we happily facilitated and paid for at a premium through the acquisition of our manifold devices and subscriptions. Cameras and microphones are recording every aspect of our existence...and that's just the way we wanted it. Capitalism is the most pernicious form of authoritarianism. We are slaves to ease. 1984 is, for all intents and purposes, a plagiarism of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, a novel written in 1923 and instantly suppressed in Zamyatin's native Russia for being ideologically undesirable. It wasn't published there until 1988 in the temporary spirit of glasnost, though copies of it had been in circulation abroad for decades. Orwell, reviewing We for TRIBUNE MAGAZINE in January of 1947, identified it as one of "the literary curiosities of this book-burning age." "This is a book to look out for when an English version appears," he wrote, and suggested that Aldous Huxley had borrowed from it extensively for A Brave New World. (For what it's worth, Huxley denied the charge vociferously and, having read We, I'd have to agree with him.) Orwell went on to criticize We for lacking political focus in favour of a more general fear of "the machine." So I like to think of 1984, written three years after this review of We, to be Orwell's attempt to correct what he identified as that work's essential flaw rather than a more cynical wholesale lift. I like to think he was driven more by the urgency of the message than by the venality of stolen valour.
Whatever the motive, Orwell's book has spawned numerous adaptations: three for television, seven for radio, a pair of feature films, and what is perhaps the single most famous commercial of all time, Ridley Scott's 1984 spot for Apple's Macintosh computer ("See why 1984 won't be like 1984"). I first read the book in high school and deemed it a musty, exaggerated cautionary tale in the grand tradition of other assigned reading like The Lord of the Flies and Orwell's own Animal Farm--that is, I dismissed it largely as one of those things old people foist on you because they think they're so smart, don't they? Reading it as an old person, as so many did after Trump's election, I found the book's vision of a totalitarian state--brainwashed by nationalism, yoked to violent xenophobia by propaganda around a forever war with a parade of dehumanized "others" (all -asia), and defined by their jobs of meaningless, eternal drudgery producing useless things and literally rewriting history at the whim of idiot rulers--to be all too prescient. Frighteningly so, in the case of our new administration's cheerful pushing of "alternative facts" and dangerous discrediting of the free press with our Big Orange Brother's "Fake News" mantra. What happened between high school (in the late-1980s/early-1990s) and now, personally, is that I lost any kind of idealism I ever had. What happened to us collectively is that 1984 came true, then became quaint, just as so many of the texts we once thought were hysteria (like Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, even David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone) turned out to be hilariously optimistic. We're right on the verge of Idiocracy at this moment and not even Idiocracy predicted a moron President who wouldn't heed the advice of someone significantly smarter than him in the interest of stopping a deadly plague. I don't think there's any way to turn us back from the brink.
Michael Radford's Nineteen Eighty-Four (hereafter 1984) is an exceptional adaptation of Orwell's book and, as such, it's almost impossible to watch now, warning as it does against these things that have happened to us, back when we could've done something to affect it. It's too late and the world, as we knew it, has effectively ended. It feels melodramatic to say that. I wonder if it will seem out of proportion in a year. In a month? A week? One of the things 1984 captures brilliantly is the speed with which perversions of fact are normalized as fact, and then how quickly reality follows suit. Winston Smith (John Hurt) works in the Ministry of Truth in 1984's Oceania. Oceania is at war with Eurasia as the film opens. When Oceania is revealed later to now be at war with Eastasia, it is Winston's job to alter all historical records to reflect and reassure that "Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia." There is no objective truth, no history that would contradict the ever-shifting position of the party, and no matter anyway when it comes to these forever wars, as most of the populace remains unaffected by them. They're sporting events, deadly Olympics watched from afar and reported as if the slaughter of faceless Hun were a contest. When the Party moves the goalposts, the official record moves with it. The only thing that ever held 1984 at bay for us was dumb fucking luck, and that luck, as luck is wont to do, ran out. There are two "realities" in the modern United States existing side-by-side, and not even a pandemic with people dying will convince those who believe the media always lies and the State only tells the truth. I think the real reality will soon stop competing with the false one. In my experience, you can give lip-service to the good fight, but the machine always wins, because there will always be people to service the machine, and the machine doesn't get tired. Even John Henry, who won the contest, died in the contesting.
In 1984, the goal of the State is to teach the art of holding two opposing views in one's head and uncritically finding both to be absolutely true. 2 + 2 = 5 and also 4, depending on who's asking. In the novel, Orwell states, "The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command." Winston's job in the Ministry of Truth (later, he will be tortured nearly to death by the "Ministry of Love") gives him a unique vantage from which to ponder the slipperiness of objective interpretations of fact. In truth, I think we lost this battle during the Reagan Administration, which was essentially a rule by campaign of self-esteem reclamation. Sure, Watergate and Vietnam, but America is more popular than Jesus and no less sainted. One day during the daily rally by the ruling party, Winston notices a particularly passionate citizen, Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), and, against all odds, Julia notices him back. The two begin an affair, meeting every few weeks to fuck and drink tea in a filthy flat Winston lets above his favourite antique store that doesn't come with the wall-sized television with built-in camera. Privacy, they think. Their first liaison, pointedly, occurs in a hyper-romantic green tableau at complete odds with the rest of the film's monochromatic pallor. In slow-motion, Radford indulges in romance-movie conventions of a beautiful woman sensuously disrobing as she walks towards the camera (us/Winston) to an orgasmic swell of music. Depending on which version you watch, the soundtrack is either the odd Eurhythmics synth tracks or an orchestral score, composed by Dominic Muldowney and preferred by Radford. Either works, though Muldowney's is more successful as satire if satire indeed was the aim.
For pillow-talk, between skylarks of revolution and escape, Winston recalls a traumatic childhood in an idealized countryside that resembles the flashback sequences from Alan Parker's Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982). In Parker's film, the hero in childhood adopts a rat he secrets into a box, develops a fever, and discovers upon returning to his pet rat that his neglect has killed it. In 1984, young Winston (Rupert Baderman) conflates the mother (Corinna Seddon) who abandoned him and his guilt over what he perceives as his mistreatment of her with a wizened prostitute (Shirley Stelfox) the adult Winston has confessed to visiting and the body of the same, discovered in a field, covered in rats. In both films, there is a superimposition on these memories, a sense of great grief amidst the wonders and discoveries of childhood: the coming of misfortune, betrayal, and most of all the failure to be protected by loved ones and to protect them in return. The greatest and only lesson of youth is that you are alone in a grand, mysterious mechanism designed only to harry and waste along the way to dusty death. Pink Floyd: The Wall and 1984 share an object of love (or lust confused for love) tied to images of putrefaction that become central, recurring phobias for the heroes--representations of corruption, of course, but spiritual corruption as well as corporeal. It's Winston's fear of rats--interpreted as an assault by his repressed guilt, sublimated into this physical thing--that finally defeats his revolutionary zeal. The sharpest tool in the State's toolkit is the individual's own acceptance of their inconsequence. Martyrdom is futile, so you may as well assimilate.
Radford's and cinematographer Roger Deakins's decision to make Winston's childhood lush and Edenic seems an obvious choice. Childhood in film is often seen as verdant and pure. When that visual palette is then equated with a nightmare fandango equal parts sexual shame and assumed guilt over the absence of a mother, it becomes clear that Radford and Deakins have something altogether more complicated, more Freudian, in mind. Winston's Oedipal split happens as we watch, and it's perverse. The father is absent, the mother is the whore--betrayed, eaten by vermin as a replacement father, the Ministry of Love's O'Brien (Richard Burton), looks on. Burton plays O'Brien with unexpected reserve unto tenderness. I think his choices feed into the reading of O'Brien as Winston's surrogate father and responsible, as such, for Winston's punishment and ultimate reconciliation. O'Brien is God in 1984 in a more tangible way than the forever-absent Big Brother, and his appearance in Winston's dream behind the child version of Winston is a statement not of Winston's disintegration, but of his Oedipus-like uncovering of himself as the instigator of the world's problems. Winston, not unlike The Birds' Melanie Daniels, is in fact the reason the terrible things in their respective universes happen. You can observe how those universes are houses of horror--and you'd be right to do so--but it doesn't change Winston's or Melanie's fundamental culpability in the tumult depicted in their films. Of note is how both movies end with quiescence. Surrender. There are too many birds. The machine never tires. Why fight?
The only relief Winston finds is in a secret journal he keeps hidden behind ("all in all it's just another brick in the") wall. He scribbles his thoughts in it, his fears and outrages, just beneath the all-seeing eye of his viewscreen. But we see him. 1984 never fails to remind us that, however secret Winston believes he's acting, he's always under the gaze of at least one camera: Radford's. Wherever he goes, he can't hide from us, and so he inhabits every frame like the caged rats used in his torture. He works, eats, sleeps, cries, fucks, and dreams in front of an audience. Us. We are Big Brother. Godard said something once about how watching movies was a criminal act. Hitchcock understood that, Michael Powell in Peeping Tom made it literal, and here again, with another Brit, we find our unblinking eye pinioning poor Winston to the stage like a bug to an entomologist's frame. Part of the despair of 1984 is our complicity in Winston's persecution. Orwell's book is frightening, but intellectually so. The radio versions, such as the first one with David Niven as Winston, are similarly Brechtian. Without the invasiveness of our participatory oppression, 1984 is academic. On film--especially in a movie theatre (if we ever go to one again)--the text becomes an invasive procedure. I think 1984 is created for cinematic adaptation: the quintessential marriage of function and form. The medium is seldom more the 'massage' as it is in Radford's film.
Winston has obtained the journal from an antique store (not unlike the one in Blow-Up) above which he now lives, curated by kind Mr. Charrington (Cyril Cusack). Sensing a kindred spirit in the ever-browsing Winston, perhaps, Charrington recommends a bauble, a glass paperweight with some sort of sea-thing entombed within. "What is it?" Winston says. "I don't know," Charrington replies. The bauble reminded me of the one Mrs. Miller looks into through an opium haze while her moronic lover dies alone in a snow bank at the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It's nothing, but it's smooth and has provenance mysterious to all but its beholder. It's the unknown in a world terribly empty of mystery. Winston buys it for four Victory dollars. Winston should wonder why Mr. Charrington is allowed to continue to exist in the middle of a place where individual expression is discouraged, much less collections of frivolous items. (The truest adaptation of We isn't Orwell's theft but George Lucas's THX 1138, still his crowning directorial achievement. In it, his numbered heroes manufacture and collect useless plastic cubes--Funko Pops by any other name.) He doesn't wonder and of course the flat he rents is no safer than anywhere else. Winston and Julia are arrested, hauled off, and tortured until they get their minds right.
The Party has three slogans: "War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery," and "Ignorance is Strength." (All of which the United States of the twenty-first century has adopted unofficially.) 1984 is the most linguistically unreliable film since Godard's Alphaville. On one level, it's about language and how language molds the way we see the world. I read a thing once decades ago--I can't find it now to save my life--about how certain cultures can't discern specific colours because they have no word for them. Myths of the Golem, where speaking the name of God heralds the apocalypse, are engaged in that quantum manufacture of the real, as are, at the pop level, Arrival and the short stories of Ted Chiang. The Bible, naturally, begins with the Word. "Victory" dollars are the same sort of semantic diarrhea as Trump's hyperbolic idioglossia. The word makes it true, you see. "Victory" dollars are the best dollars, the best, I'm told they're better than most. Use of them makes Oceania great again. It amused me in high school that the national paper of Russia was called "Pravda," i.e., "truth." Oh, how I used to laugh at the irony of a state-controlled propaganda arm calling itself "truth." But look at our own state-controlled propaganda arm, Fox News, and their slogans identifying themselves as the way and the light. It takes little more than confidence to convince over 40% of humans of your bona fides. Their broadcasts have so destabilized our notions of reality that almost half of all of us now reject the evidence before our eyes and our ears. Winston is told by O'Brien that he has a real knack for revisionism, but is using an outdated edition of a dictionary containing the "unwords" no longer permissible in Oceania. In Alphaville, a dictionary is the most important artifact its detective uses to make sense of the puzzles of his world. 1984 is the Word made into light.
Winston and Julia's dreams of revolution in the lazy afterglow of their unsexy lovemaking include fantasies of overthrowing Big Brother, of revealing the lies that keep the faceless godheads in control, of becoming truly "free" to be domestic in a traditional sense. Julia at one point buys a plain dress, puts on some makeup she's smuggled into the city, and does her best to be womanly for Winston. I like that the thing to which these characters most ardently aspire is the very thing against which most romantic films are striving. Julia wants to be girly, a wife. Her attempts at dressing the part are embarrassing, and Hurt doesn't play Winston's reaction as lustful appreciation; it's more that he's touched by the effort. This accomplishes two things: it shows that Julia is cosplaying a barely-remembered "normalcy," and it confirms that all that's left in this new world are imperfect gestures. The sex, then, isn't joyous--it's brief, furtive, and full of the knowledge that it, like Julia's ill-fitting dress and childishly-applied lipstick, is appreciated because it's one of the last vaguely consensual gestures left. Even that is a sorry respite soon taken away. I like that Winston and Julia are pale, emaciated products truly of a capitalist's nightmare of socialism. Of the manifold ways in which 1984 is profound, count the joyless desperation with which Winston and Julia try to be in love, try to feel lust, try to approximate what to them is only a rumour of an ancestral memory. If everything happened the way they dream it will happen, they'll still be mere automatons doing their best to approximate what they think is being human. Aren't we all?
Rushed into production at the end of 1983 and completed and released in the UK before the end of its titular year, 1984 is ultimately more anthropology than prophecy. Radford mines the past for this vision of the future, and so his film looks like found footage from the 1930s of a steampunk alternate universe. I wondered a time or two if the great Bioshock video game franchise didn't borrow its look, and its future-past technologies, from this picture. Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) almost certainly did. Because men are social primates vulnerable to totalitarian control, should a regime come to power willing to exploit base, innate impulses like fear and tribalism, the majority will give themselves over to being ruled. As men are voyeuristic by nature with object choice governed primarily by their gaze, the central instruments engaged in their assumption of power will likely be visual by design. And because we perpetuate cultural knowledge through a shared, written legacy, the manipulation of the Word will be inordinately powerful in affecting obedience through consensus, artificially constructed or not.
We are monkeys in a monkey house. 1984 was always good, but it's singularly devastating at this crisis point because it's no longer a theoretical exercise. Rather, it's a terminal diagnosis for the body politic. Wags will argue that we were always controlled in some way, and I'd be hard-pressed to argue any paranoia to be delusional at this point--though I do remember a time, not so long ago, when there was at least an attempt to appear ashamed of a lie. That's over now, evidently without consequences: no mass protests, no sick-outs or strikes. If there's no time off to vote, there's certainly none to protest. The greatest insulator for corrupt leadership, it seems, is tying one's healthcare to work that barely pays the current month's necessities. The last scene of the book and film alike is Winston, his rebelliousness crushed, declaring tearfully his love for his tormentor, the father, the state, the creator of the world and its destroyer, should he choose. 1984 told us in time--right in the middle of a corrupt administration, using Orwell's book as a blueprint. We didn't listen then, we aren't listening now. The child is grown, the dream is gone.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Criterion Collection brings 1984 to Blu-ray (spine #984--impressive) pointedly in the middle of the first Trump term. The 1.85:1, 1080p image is gorgeously filmic. The smallest details are clear and precise, from the paint peeling on the guardrails outside Winston's apartment to the purplish veins in the prostitute's upper thighs. While I hadn't given it any thought, I didn't know before this presentation that John Hurt has freckles. You can distinguish every single hair in Julia's armpits--and I say that not to be wry or off-colour, but to observe that every aspect of this film has been meticulously arranged. The food in the Ministry's cafeteria is vile slop and Radford spends time showing Winston gaping, with mild distress, at a lunch-lady labouring over a giant, steaming pot. This dystopic vision of groupthink is disgusting, fallen to disrepair. A thin layer of filth covers every surface, all of it distinct. The result of this obsessive attention is as immersive a vision as the one created for Blade Runner. When Winston helps unclog a neighbour's sink, a thin scum of oil sits atop the mess--a credibly sickening sight in this incarnation. For what it's worth, this scene includes a pair of monstrous children, brainwashed by their steady diet of state-sponsored hatespeak propaganda. Were Fox News ever outlawed, as it is in other countries, we'd be in a better place.
A note concerning the various viewscreens scattered throughout the film: each telescreen is rendered in this transfer so vividly that it's possible to note the lines of resolution, and the occasional faint reflections of the characters standing in front of them. Gorgeous. The film was originally shot in full colour and then bleach-bypassed in post-production, a process Deakins favours and refined over the years as one of the pioneers of the digital intermediate. There is, in other words, a more vivid-looking 1984 out there somewhere. For this Criterion release, Deakins supervised the desaturation process following a 4K restoration of the original camera negative. A sequence where Winston goes through a doorway in his industrial world that looks out onto his green fantasy-scape is a showcase for not only the HiDef format, but also Deakins as a film artist of the highest calibre. Going backwards, the transition reminds me of the in-camera magic of Dorothy opening her destroyed farm's house to a Technicolor Oz. Forwards, it reminds me ironically of poor Detective Bumstead opening a hole in the side of Dark City.
Two LPCM mono audio tracks are on board, giving viewers the choice to watch the film with Radford's preferred Muldowney score or the studio-imposed Eurhythmics score. The former yields a more sober, timeless piece, while the Eurhythmics' zoomy electronica lends 1984 a vaguely surreal, cyberpunk vibe that for me called up, of all things, Heavy Metal. In either case, Radford uses music minimally and I found neither version to be markedly superior to the other. The authoritarian anthem a group of young brownshirts sings on public transport is the same in both versions and composed by Muldowney. The scene is a callback, obviously, to the "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" sequence in Cabaret, and though the comparison is apt, it's one of the few times I consider the film to be a bit on the nose. I was surprised not to encounter an audio commentary on this disc--especially since Hurt was probably still alive at the time of its conception (and what a treasure that would have been!)--but there is a trio of fine short interviews with Radford, Deakins, and journalist and 1984 historian David Ryan, plus a vintage Behind the Scenes featurette. Note that Twilight Time's OOP Blu-ray featured an isolated track with just the Eurhythmics score.
The Radford piece (22 mins., HD), from 2019, finds the director energetic and in fine fettle as he discusses the resurgence in popularity of 1984 and its interest as unheeded prophecy. He spends most of his time, however, recounting how the film came into being. I was intrigued to learn that both he and Deakins made their feature debuts on the film that landed them this gig, 1983's Another Time, Another Place. As IMDb lists Deakins's first feature as Marquis de Sade's Justine (1977), there may be some confusion on Radford's part. In any case, theirs is/was a fruitful collaboration. Radford recalls approaching John Hurt to tell him he was the first and only choice for Winston Smith--and that although Richard Burton, who didn't join production until six weeks into shooting, was not the first choice for O'Brien (Brando was asked!), Radford was thrilled with the performance and Burton's professionalism (read: sobriety). I didn't love his recap of how he got the rats in the cage to fight each other with an electrified wire, and how by the third take they had learned through cooperation not to get shocked anymore. He recalls this as an amusing anecdote but it makes me queasy. Deakins's turn (21 mins., HD) is a joy for gearheads as he delves into the kinds of cameras and techniques he used in addition to the difficulties of doing front-projection at the scale needed to replicate the thirty-foot telescreens of 1984. Hint: he used carbon-arc projectors. Cool? Incredibly cool. Deakins comes across as warm and understated. Legend.
"Behind the Scenes" (5 mins.) is a standard news bite showing some shots captured during the shoot underneath Wembley Stadium for the scene where Winston helps Julia up from falling. Hurt and Hamilton speak of the first time they read the book and then later, wearier, the pressures of the production. The segment reveals that Radford worked on the script for just three weeks, because he needed to get going and get the film in the can to hit the timely release date. Radford seems incredibly sure of himself. A requirement, I think. Historian David Ryan (22 mins., HD) goes into great detail on the various adaptations of 1984, this one in particular. He doesn't bring up We, but that's of course not a prerequisite. He compares Hurt to previous Winstons like Eddie Albert, David Niven, and Edmund O'Brien and offers an excellent analysis of the things each adaptation has chosen to elide and focus on. The spark that led to some of my own ruminations about language in this text sprung from Mr. Ryan's cogent critique. A trailer (2 mins.), bumped up to HD, is scored to the Eurhythmics' "Sexcrime" and it's entirely wrong. And there's an archival photo of Orwell in this thing that dissolves into the image of Big Brother. That also strikes me as entirely wrong. Can't put my finger on it. For all the bad decisions here, I kind of love this trailer in exactly the same way I love Ladyhawke. The narrator, by the way, calls this "the crowning performance" of Richard Burton's career, and that, you know, bothers me, too. If you're curious about what the film looked like before the colours were bleached, the trailer provides a tantalizing glimpse.
Critic A.L. Kennedy pens the insert essay, "Coming Soon to a Country Near You," which proves essential to an understanding of Orwell and his adaptations. He takes a notably British perspective, talking about the privations of the Thatcher years (which I did not and cannot) and British food, including Orwell's horror at wasting even a morsel. He covers potential "Me Too" issues with the film's depiction of the prostitute (something I think ignores Winston's confusion of his mortification at his sexuality with his mother's absence, but point taken in any event) while holding fast on the progressiveness of this Julia's sexual emancipation and power. Kennedy is a champion of what he calls the "English soul" of Radford's reticent-in-moments character drama while invoking Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love as a valuable corollary example of 1984's push-pull love affair. It's a beautifully- written and argued piece. Going forward, I'd read anything he writes.
110 minutes; R; 1.85:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 1.0 LPCM; English SDH subtitles; BD-50; Region A; Criterion