Release Date(s)1984 (July 23, 2019)
Studio(s)Virgin Films/Umbrella-Rosenblum Films/20th Century Fox (Criterion - Spine #984)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
1984, based on George Orwell’s 1948 novel, is his dismal prediction of the fall of Western culture. In the year of the title, civilization has been damaged by war, civil conflict, and revolution. Oceania, one of three totalitarian super-states, is ruled by the Party under the leadership of Big Brother. The Party uses Thought Police and ubiquitous surveillance devices called Telescreens to ferret out and destroy anyone who does not fully conform to its regime.
Winston Smith (John Hurt), a member of the middle class, works in a small office cubicle at the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite historical records to conform to the state’s constantly changing version of history. Haunted by painful memories and restless desires, Winston keeps a secret diary of his private thoughts.
His life takes a turn when fellow worker Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) furtively entices him into an illicit affair. Their first rendezvous takes place in the remote countryside, where they exchange subversive ideas. Later, Winston seizes the opportunity to rent a room above a pawn shop in the less restrictive proletarian sector, where they continue to meet. Julia obtains contraband food and clothing, and for several months they secretly enjoy idyllic moments of relative freedom and contentment.
This lasts only until the Thought Police raid the apartment, arrest, and separate them. Taken to the Ministry of Love for questioning and “rehabilitation,” Winston encounters O’Brien (Richard Burton), a high-ranking member of the Party, who inflicts psychological brain washing and physical torture to change Winston’s view of the Party, its principles, and his own opinions.
Director Michael Radford has created a dystopia very much like the one described in the novel. Towering masses of decaying concrete and steel and bombed-out ruins provide a grim, cold landscape. The film opens with the showing of a propaganda film on a huge screen to a crowd of thousands. Worked up to a frenzy by film clips of devastation interspersed with images of the leader of the enemy state, Goldstein, the crowd cheers breathlessly when the Oceanic flag and close-ups of Big Brother ultimately appear. Workers, all dressed in nondescript dark uniforms, spontaneously stand and salute, cheering the larger-than-life portrait filling the screen.
The movie doesn’t shy away from the strongest sections of the novel – the sex scenes between Winston and Julia and graphic images of Winston undergoing his “re-education” in the Ministry of Love in its gripping third act.
Hurt is an excellent choice for Winston. His slight figure and haggard look suggests a man worn down by oppression. He goes through the motions of his dull life dutifully until Julia opens a door to unimagined freedom. Together, they risk discovery and attain a semblance of normalcy.
Burton brings enormous screen presence to the role of O’Brien. Speaking calmly to Winston rather than browbeating him, he attempts to use reason before resorting to harsher methods to remedy Winston’s thought crimes. Burton conveys authority, menace, and power simultaneously, creating suspense. We know O’Brien will not stop until he breaks Winston’s will, whatever the cost. This was Burton’s last screen role. He would die two months before the release of the film.
The Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection features a new 4K digital restoration, supervised by cinematographer Roger Deakins, and is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Color has purposely been desaturated to provide a uniformly somber look. This technique works effectively for the subject matter. Face tones appear blanched and detail is sharp in close-ups, particularly the stubble, birth marks, and age lines on John Hurt’s face. Color palette is dark and dull with the exception of the lush green countryside in Winston and Julia’s first private meeting, the red sash around the women workers’ waists, and Julia’s very red lipstick in the room above the pawn shop. The office where Winston labors, the dark-clad mass audience for the propaganda film, scenes in underground tunnels, and actual locations of abandoned buildings and ruins have a slightly bluish tint and use shadows as a visual metaphor for menace and oppression.
Audio is uncompressed monaural with subtitles in English SDH. Dialogue is clear throughout, and Burton’s dialogue, though spoken softly, is menacing and frightening. The propaganda rally is especially impressive, with a huge cast of extras cheering, booing, screaming, and applauding as different images appear on the giant screen. The volume is enhanced for dramatic effect. Sounds of two rats struggling in a cage, a punch to Julia’s solar plexus, helicopter rotor blades, Big Brother’s pronouncements on the Telescreens, and the song a woman sings below Winston and Julia’s room are balanced well and contribute atmospheric touches. Both music tracks contain very good fidelity, and show off the Eurythmics’ electronic track and Dominic Muldowney’s traditional orchestral score well, though stereo would have enhanced their impact.
Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release include an interview with director Michael Radford; an interview with cinematographer Roger Deakins; an interview with David Ryan, author of a book about George Orwell; behind-the-scenes footage; two different soundtracks; the theatrical trailer; and a booklet containing a critical essay.
Interview with Director Michael Radford – This interview was recorded in London in March, 2019. 1984 marked Radford’s directorial debut. Seeing that 1984 was getting close, he wanted to make the film and have it released in that year. Rights were secured from a lawyer in Chicago. A number of famous directors, including Francis Ford Coppola, didn’t know how to adapt the novel. Radford wrote a script while producer Simon Perry lined up financing and put together a package. Radford’s concept was showing what a person in the past would think the future would be like. The look he wanted was “post-war shabbiness.” Radford used 2,000 extras, 6 cameras, and camera cranes for the opening sequence of workers watching a Party propaganda film. “We needed a London that was vaguely recognizable.” Radford had John Hurt in mind to play Winston Smith all along. The role of O’Brien was offered to Paul Scofield, Alan Bates, and Marlon Brando. It was six weeks into production before Richard Burton came on board. Burton, who had a drinking problem, did not drink at all during filming. Radford refers to Suzanna Hamilton, who played Julia, as an actress with “something ordinary about her, but something electric as well.” The salute in the opening sequence was both a victory sign and a sign of being chained up.
Interview with Cinematographer Roger Deakins – Deakins began his career filming documentaries. “Shooting documentaries gives you a sensibility of reacting to things as they happen.” The film had a small budget. Because the production ran out of money, the fateful Room 101 was just an empty room with Hurt strapped into a chair in the middle. To achieve the look of the movie, Deakins used bleach bypass processing, a technique that drains much of the color from film, providing half black-and-white/half color images. Location filming was done in and around abandoned buildings in London. All scenes were shot in camera (this was pre-CGI). He describes how a Party member’s speech was filmed with large screens next to speakers. Seven generators and seven miles of cable were used for this scene, but the budget wouldn’t allow for the rental of cranes, so cameras had to be placed in high positions around the arena. A glass shot – an antiquated special effects process used most famously in the original King Kong – was used to get a particularly difficult shot. This process involves shooting live actors through a glass panel with part of the desired scene painted on it.
Interview with David Ryan – Ryan is the author of George Orwell on Screen. He was “hooked on Orwell ever since” reading his essay Why I Write. Orwell appeals to both conservatives and left-wingers. “Either side could go off the deep end.” Orwell’s message in 1984 is don’t let it happen. The book was published in 1948, the last two digits of the publication year juxtaposed to provide the novel’s title. Ryan recounts the radio, TV, and movie versions that came before Radford’s film. A radio adaptation in 1949 starred David Niven as Winston Smith, a second radio adaptation in 1953 starred Richard Widmark, a Studio One TV show (the first on screen) in 1953 starred Eddie Albert, a BBC version broadcast live in 1954 starred Peter Cushing, and a 1956 film starred Edmund O’Brien. Orwell’s widow did not like the futuristic look of the 1956 film. Ryan notes that “there are so many little things that Radford gets right” – helicopters hovering outside windows, the aerobics instructor conducting calisthenics, mundane news issuing from the omnipresent screens, and telescreens everywhere.
Behind-the-Scenes Footage – This brief featurette shows the first meeting of Winston and Julia filmed in an underground tunnel. Hurt matches the description of Winston Smith in the novel. Radford hopes the movie’s “shelf life” will be extensive. Suzanna Hamilton is also interviewed and notes that she read the novel when she was 14.
Soundtracks – Two scores were commissioned for 1984: an electronic one by the Eurythmics and an orchestral one by composer Dominic Muldowney. Both are included.
Booklet – This fold-out enclosure includes a critical essay by A.L. Kennedy, photos of the leading players, a list of key crew members, and poster art.
– Dennis Seuling