1984 (1984)

1984 poster48 hours after revelling in the sheer and utter dreamlike silliness of Monty Python And The Holy Grail my viewing went about as far in the opposing direction as possible with the sheer and unrelenting nightmarish grimness of Michael Radford’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984.

This screening was a slightly different to normal one as it came as part of a small season of events commemorating Orwell at Guernsey’s Guille-Allès Library organised by Thinking On Your Feet.

The film is an odd one for me, I have in the past referenced how much Orwell’s book means to me and I’ve seen various versions on screen, including this one, in the past. Watching it tonight however was like watching it again for the first time as there were scenes, sections and images I had entirely forgotten while others remained seared in the mind and, above all, I’d forgotten quite how far into the visual grimness Radford, along with cinematographer Roger Deakins and designer Allan Cameron, delved.

1984 - Winston Smith - John Hurt
Hurt as Winston Smith

Shot, appropriately, between March and May 1984 in London from the opening scene of the ‘two minutes hate’ onwards the mix of the visual design and Deakin’s spectacular camera work utterly drain the life out the world we are seeing.

All but the strongest of colours are sucked out of the images and the entire environment is a shadow of what once was filled with shambling or raging figures in identikit boiler suits looked over by the ever seeing face of the somewhat Mosley-like Big Brother while the tanks and helicopters of the Thought Police constantly hover in the background.

Into this are occasional flashes of bright colour; the greens and blues of a countryside that, as the film goes on, it becomes increasingly clear are but a dream of a memory for protagonist Winston Smith (John Hurt) and hammer home the film’s own nightmarish quality to a tee.

1984 - Two Minutes Hate rally
The end of the Two Minutes Hate

Radford does a terrific job in translating Orwell’s book for the screen, capturing the essence of the language and downtrodden feel of the world, so much so that we don’t have to be told about the poor quality of the food, the ‘greasiness’ of the gin or the shabbiness of the cigarettes, we see it in situ and it’s used to emphasise points just as in the original text.

Along with this come a couple of stand out performances.

While there are no bad performances with Richard Burton in particular, in his last role, standing out as Inner Party member O’Brien and Suzanna Hamilton doing all she can with the remarkably sparse but powerful Julia.

1984 - Suzanna Hamilton and John Hurt
Hamilton and Hurt as Julia and Winston

It is Hurt though, in the central role of Winston Smith, who, frankly, amazes.

Having already built a strong reputation for both physicality and outright acting in the likes of Alien and The Elephant Man here Hurt appears in every scene and is both our guide into this world and, as it goes on, it feels like our co-conspirator navigating Air Strip One.

From the off he creates a performance that is visceral and we can feel every cough and rattle of Smith along with him, along with the occasional joy of his dreams but also the terror of his nightmares all of which converge as the movie goes on.

1984 - Richard Burton and John Hurt
Burton and Hurt

As the film reaches its denouement and Winston is taken into the Ministry Of Love, Hurt becomes almost unrecognisable as the physically and mentally destroyed Smith in a way I’ve seen few actors achieve without it being an expressed ‘gimmick’ for promotional purposes (Christian Bale I’m looking at you here) and no matter how much make up or special effects are used and what’s more he transmits the feeling of this from the screen so we can feel every wrench and moment of torture.

Of course what all of this is for is to reflect issues of the real world back at us.

Supposedly when Orwell wrote the book it was a comment against Stalinism in Russia, but thoughts of Nazism can’t have been far from his mind either merely three years after the Second World War.

1984 - John Hurt - Winston Smith
Smith (Hurt) at home

When the film was made of course the far right was on the rise in England and a strong Conservative government was in power which could have lead to certain reflections and now it feels, maybe more than ever with fake news, internet surveillance and again the empowerment of extremism on all sides, as potent as ever and Radford delivers this message as implicitly as Orwell’s original, and I couldn’t help but wonder if we’ll see another take on it sometime soon inspired by Boris, Trump, et al…

Back to this film though and even more so than I remembered Michael Radford’s 1984 is a tour de force where every aspect of filmmaking combines to create something both of its time and timeless while also being visually stunning in its own grimly powerful way.

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