Evaluating Michael Radford’s 1984 film of George Orwell’s seminal, essential Nineteen Eighty-Four is a difficult task, even setting aside the uncomfortable modern parallels we’re all living through. As a film, in many ways, Radford’s adaptation doesn’t entirely work – it’s glacially slow, it feels like it’s often alluding to its plot rather than letting it directly unfold, and it exposes Orwell’s novel’s story for the weak thread it really is. The result is a film with only the barest story, and instead an entire reliance on mood, tone, and worldbuilding.
But, my God, does it succeed on that front, bringing Orwell’s bleak vision to vivid, haunting life, and slowly crushing the hope out of not only John Hurt’s brittle Winston Smith, but the viewer as well, doing justice to Orwell’s oppressive world and then some.
Radford’s film wastes little time plunging us into Oceania’s politics, opening in the middle of a rally where the crowds are incited into a spitting, sputtering, uncontrollable fury at the face of their hated enemy, only to have that hatred assuaged by the comforting, calm visage of Big Brother, projected onto a massive monitor in front of the crowd. And as the anger instantly fades, followed by loving tears, defiant salutes (salutes which echo the crossed arms of Pink Floyd: The Wall), and belted anthems, the film lets its title cover the screen, as if to say, yes, we’re here now. It’s an effective, immersive opening to our story, emphasizing that the world we’re in is as important – if not more so – than any of our characters. Indeed, it’s some time before we spot Winston Smith in the crowd, doing his best to fit in, even if it might be against his own will. Here, as he will for much of the film, he struggles to stand out, looking like everyone else, from his bland outfit to neutral expression.
That’s more or less the approach Radford takes to much of the film. Everything feels muted and oppressed in Nineteen Eighty-Four – dialogue feels whispered, almost implied, as though every word is a stolen moment. Winston’s internal monologues are largely kept that way – internal – with many of his actions being the only way we can judge him. Every single moment of the film is overlaid with a constant stream of chatter, noise, and reporting from the omnipresent televisions – it becomes inescapable, something you can’t get away from, and making those rare quiet moments all the more powerful.
The result is an odd adaptation of a classic novel, one that I can’t swear works if you’re not already familiar with the text. (It’s part of my classes’ summer reading, so I’ve read it recently.) 1984 is a book in which characters’ motivations are forced to be kept internal, and the film embraces that, telling its story largely through allusions and implications. Moreover, it cuts many of Orwell’s more didactic, lengthy passages, letting the film’s visuals tell much of the story. What that means, though, is that the story may not be accessible for those not already familiar with the book. Is that a problem? Undoubtedly…although, perhaps less so given the book’s ubiquity. Nonetheless, it makes it difficult to recommend as a film on its own terms.
And yet, as an experience, Nineteen Eighty-Four is astonishing, an incredible piece of mood and tone that immerses you in a dystopia more thoroughly perhaps than even the book. In Radford’s hands – and anchored by Hurt’s soulful performance – Oceania is brought to bleak, ravaged life, covered in grime, held together with duct tape and force of will. Big Brother lurks everywhere, and constantly watches. The Thought Police could be anywhere. And everything – everything – is held within and guarded, with a neutral front presented to the world. It’s oppressive, haunting, and disturbing – it’s Brazil without the dark humor, and even less hope of escapism.
The result is a film that should be seen, and experienced, even if I can’t entirely recommend it. It feels like it would almost work better as a music video or a silent film, playing on screens in a club, overshadowed by some ominous techno beat that drowns out the largely minimal dialogue, and lets the faces and performances tell everything. It’s a remarkable, astonishing film, one that stays true to the spirit of Orwell’s book, flaws and all. Should you see it? Yes…but approach it as a powerful work of style, mood, and tone, more than a typical story/plot.