FILM REVIEWS

Nineteen Eighty-Four

7/10 R 01 hr 53 min

October 10, 1984

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For some reason, George Orwell's 1984 is a current best-seller on Amazon. Something to do with the new administration and its forward-thinking views on the mutability of facts? I wouldn't want to speculate.

Orwell's satire was based on the author's time working for the good guys—at the BBC, where he was a wartime propagandist. He even named his protagonist "Winston" as if to honor Churchill. The book is a hammer against those who looked the other way at the crimes of England's then-ally, the USSR. Details of the show trials, the paranoia, and the use of raw alcohol to cope are straight from the Communist regime. Supposedly, in Moscow once, there was a neon sign celebrating the year-early completion of a Five-Year Plan. It read "2 PLUS 2 = 5."

Available on Vudu—for free, if you can stand a barrage of noisy commercials—director Michael Radford's 1984 does an outstanding job of illustrating the book. It's a parallel universe, where World War II is in its 45th continuous year. Loyal party member Winston Smith (John Hurt, who passed away last week) is starting to have doubts about the news he's required to obliterate at the Ministry of Truth. Against the will of the state, and its symbol Big Brother, he starts an affair with a fellow Party member Julia (Suzanna Hamilton, whose intensity and haircut suggest Ayn Rand).

The standard critique of 1984 is that Julia isn't much of a character, being a symbol of hope and romance more than a protagonist. No argument here. The necessarily hushed dialogue makes it hard for those who aren't familiar with the plot, up to the ending where the entrails of a secret police state are anatomized by Smith and his superior O'Brien (Richard Burton in his last role).

In an end title, Radford notes that the movie was shot in spring 1984, in the time frame of the novel. At that date, there was still enough post-industrial wreckage left in London to serve as a believable backdrop in this bleak parable. That wrecked London is gone. But it's the linguistic cargo—the story of "Newspeak," the outlining of the censor's calling—that makes this tale still fearful. In film or book form, it demonstrates how "unwords" beget unthoughts. Such was Orwell's judgment, elsewhere: "To see what's in front of one's nose requires constant struggle."

Based on George Orwell's dystopian novel from the 1940s, the movie was produced in the very year that Orwell had set it, 1984.

Horrified by the recent atrocities by the Germans and Russians, and fearing that England and America might take a similar turn, Orwell had painted a frightening portrait of the ultimate dictatorship, and the movie faithfully followed him. Some of the details were:

(1) Continual surveillance, in this case carried out by cameras hidden inside television sets.

(2) Decaying infrastructure and shoddy merchandise produced by the Party's monopoly of the economy.

(3) A political language, NewSpeak, full of euphemisms and code words for the government's activities.

(4) A brutal law-enforcement system in which being suspected even of disloyal THOUGHTS can bring barbaric punishment.

The movie stars John Hurt as the beaten rebel, Susanna Thompson as his mistress, and Richard Burton as the government official on whom they pin their hopes (like Orwell himself, Burton was fatally ill during the production and died before the movie's release)

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