Retro Review: 1984.
We pay our respects to the late great John Hurt, who passed away earlier this year from pancreatic cancer, by reviewing one of his best movies not involving an alien bursting through his chest.
The hits just keep coming in 2017. Hot on the heels of some of the most iconic entertainers of my childhood passing away in 2016, we lose another talented actor in John Hurt. An actor’s actor, Mr. Hurt played numerous notable roles, from the titular Elephant Man of 1980 all the way to The War Doctor in the latest iteration of the cult classic Dr. Who. He even had more on-screen deaths (47) than Sean Bean!
One of his most famous turns was as Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, the dystopian movie based on the best-selling book by George Orwell. Seeing as the book has once again hit the bestsellers list for reasons I couldn’t possibly fathom (obvious existential-dread-laced sarcasm is obvious), it is both fitting and timely to send off John Hurt with a retrospective of this classic movie.
1984 (1984…talk about timing)
For all of the three people alive that did not have to read this book in English class, the story is about a society in which the proletariat is oppressed by Big Brother, the face of the totalitarian State of Oceania. Not satisfied with its citizen’s fear and obedience, Oceania expends nearly all of its efforts and resources gas-lighting the citizenry, crafting narratives that compel love and devotion to the state and a willingness to deny even the simplest of truths should they conflict with Big Brother’s needs.
Winston Smith is employed in a department that oversees the creation of “alternative facts”. He takes the news as it comes in and redacts it to suit the narratives of the state. But Winston isn’t merely a cog in the machine, and he harbors a deep seated desire to rebel; any rebellion would do, just so long as he can both kick the machine and assert some semblance of his humanity at the same time. Into this situation come Julia, a fiery agent at a Department that seeks to further cow people by such endeavors as the destruction of the orgasm. If you hadn’t guessed by now, this is a really shitty world.
Julia and Winston attract each other instantly, and begin the deadly game of resistance through an illegal love affair. But Big Brother is always watching, and their union is ultimately doomed to failure. What happens next is what sets 1984 apart from many of its contemporaries, and I’d be a heel if I didn’t make you watch that for yourself.
Under The Spreading Chestnut Tree…
This movie holds up amazingly well, even after all these years. The visuals have been retouched, and are crisp and clear. There isn’t much in the way of special effects to date the film. All of the video aspects presented in the movie were intentionally shot to look like 1940s newsreel footage, so the fact that it looks even more dated in 2017 is a feature not a bug. The drab, post-apocalyptic ruin that is London is both instantly reminiscent of the bombing she took during WW2 as well as indicative of any future society eking out of a living using the corpse of a civilization that stopped giving a damn long ago.
The only aspect of this film that has suffered over time was some of the sound, and I had to turn on subtitles to catch all the conversations that were going on, especially when propaganda was blaring in the background or the mob was whipping itself into a frenzy during such delightful events as public executions. Surround Sound and deep digital bass don’t serve this film, and I had to actually turn the bells and whistles off on my laptop as I watched.
Director Michael Radford elected to lean heavily on the “show, don’t tell” method of adapting the novel for the screen. There is plenty of evocative imagery in 1984, and for the most part it works (my only gripe being the imagery fails to generate a satisfying foreboding of what might lurk in Room 101). While I’m sure the intent was to rekindle aspects of Nazi Germany for thematic impact, the film is eerily prescient of today’s situations such as the rise of Donald Trump and the ultra-nationalism of events like Brexit. It gives both an intellectual and emotional touchstone that gives the audience it’s lens into the happenings in Oceania.
…I sold you/You sold me.
The only narration we get is the occasional segment where Winston is writing in his forbidden diary. Any exposition we get from the news announcements that pepper the movie are of course highly suspect, and it adds to the feeling of not knowing what’s true and what’s false. Even the speeches given by O’Brien (Richard Burton) at the end are dripping with doublespeak and inculcation.
As such, 1984 lives or dies on its acting, and the film delivers flawlessly. John Hurt is at the top of his game here, effortlessly flowing between Winston’s facade as an obsequious drone and his true face as a furtive rebel; a man damaged by childhood tragedy who only wants to watch it all burn. Suzanna Hamilton is excellent as Julia. Their love begins as one of equal exploitation: Winston wants only corruption and defilement, and Julia fuels both her righteous fury as well as a sense of self by reciprocating his malcontent. They soften towards each other in turns, and a scene where Julia seeks to nourish her femininity by surprising Winston with a “girly” dress was both tender and powerful. Their growth towards each other, in specific, and humanity in general make their doom all the more poignant.
It is in that doom that (for me) the real star of the show gets his spotlight. Richard Burton’s turn as the traitorous O’Brien is some of the best villainy on display in cinema. Once again, talking too much about this phase of the movie would spoil it’s finest act, but suffice to say O’Brien is a real mind-fuck. John Hurt carries the majority of the film and is fantastic, but Burton’s scene chewing villain takes the film to a whole new level. Richard Burton died shortly after making 1984, so reusing a film that was originally a tribute to Burton as a tribute to Hurt seems fitting.
“… to the past, or to the future… from a dead man… greetings.”
Ultimately, 1984 is a tale continually told throughout history. That it was conceived in this fashion in response to Nazi Germany, or that it resonates anew in 2017 isn’t all that surprising. It is both a promise, and a warning. A call for vigilance and action.
I could rattle off a list of quotes from this movie that ring out through the years, and this is a testament to its quality and power. Beautifully realized, 1984 is brought to life through imagery and artifice. This film works as a testament to John Hurt’s brilliant career, and it also speaks to the importance of art as messenger. You couldn’t do much better than to turn off the newspeak some evening and give this film a watch. Just beware: Big Brother is watching.