Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

Director/Screenwriter: Michael Radford

The Class of ’84 Blogathon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This entry is part of the Class of ’84 Blogathon being hosted by Joe Valdez at This Distracted Globe.

Big Brother is watching you.

Whether you’ve ever read a word, or even heard of George Orwell’s seminal dystopian tale 1984, the above iconic quote is certain to have chilled your heart at some time or another. I’m not even sure this quote occurs in the book. It certainly doesn’t in Michael Radford’s evocative interpretation. Instead, in true cinematic fashion, the ever-present image of the carnivorous face of “B.B.” staring rapaciously out of two-way video screens all over the fictitious land of Oceania is all we need to experience what the people of Oceania do—a humorless totalitarian state where even thoughts are monitored for antisocial tendencies.

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Orwell (real name Eric Blair), a British subject, recorded propaganda broadcasts to combat Tokyo Rose and other Axis propagandists in the Pacific theatre during World War II. Tellingly, his main protagonist in 1984, Winston Smith, spends his days at the Ministry of Truth—in newspeak, Orwell’s vocabulary of political obfuscation, Mini-true—“correcting” history by replacing purged enemies of the state with acceptable icons in newspapers and broadcasts. It seems Orwell, whom one presumes was a patriot, might have had second thoughts about propaganda, particularly after the truth about Stalin’s brand of communism became all too clear. 1984 is clearly a cautionary tale to those in the West whose faith in Stalin would not be shaken.

The film begins with an epigram: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” We enter a stadium-sized gathering of Outer (rank and file) Party members watching a show trial of traitors accusing themselves of thought crimes and antisocial acts on an enormous screen. As the camera pans across the expanse of blue-jumpsuited workers, some rise spontaneously with the wrists of their fisted hand crossed over their heads. One of these workers is Smith (John Hurt), whose attention strays from the trial to the front row of Inner Party members. At the conclusion of the trial, the workers rise and shout hate-filled diatribes at the traitor, including a bitter-faced woman (Suzanna Hamilton). Smith retires to his quarters and in the only part of the room that isn’t viewable, removes a brick from his wall and extracts a journal into which he records his thoughts. In it, her writes that he hates this woman. Little does he know that an anonymous note that comes through the pneumatic tubes that send him his work for the day is from her. Her name is Julia, and she says “I love you.”

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Knowing that he is helping the State to lie and remain in a perpetual state of war drives Winston to rebel. For some time, he has been going in to the squalid proletariat section of town where vestiges of the old way of life—people in everyday clothes who continue to have sex and babies and where artifacts such as paperweights and wooden beds with mattresses can be found—exist unmolested by the Party. He paid a prostitute $2 to have sex with her; he loved how sloppy she was, the sense of disorderly freedom he felt. When he and Julia meet and become lovers, he takes her to a room Mr. Charrington (Cyril Cusack), an antiques dealer in the prole section, rents to him for $4 a week. He reads a book that seems modeled on Machiavelli’s The Prince to her as they lay in bed, a secreted gift to him from Inner Party leader O’Brien (Richard Burton). And then the thought police swoop down on them, and O’Brien sees to Smith’s torture-filled reeducation himself, ending with terrifying Smith senseless by placing a cage of rats over his head, rats being Smith’s greatest fear after seeing them crawling all over his dead mother in the aftermath of the war that saw B.B. rise to power. In the end, Smith and Julia are hollowed out, their love destroyed along with their free will.

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Radford’s Oceania is claustrophobic in private and fascistically grand in public. It provides a believable environment for what is essentially a caricature of a communist country, its machinery antiquated even as its world seems futuristic. This is, I feel, a great strength of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The utter devastation of war without end—the enemy changing frequently since the object is to keep warring, not win any concessions—and Smith’s memories looking all the world like London after the Blitz, ground this film in a European reality that was real not only for Orwell, but for the British cast and crew who made this film. The performances thus are wholly consonant with the mise-en-scène.

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It’s well known that I’m not a big fan of the Coen Brothers, but I have always admired the work of their regular cinematographer Roger Deakins. Here, before the Coens were a blip on his radar, Deakins works with the blue steel palette that is de rigueur for coloring dehumanization and misery, inflecting it, of course, with idealized images in bright colors and Julia’s nude body as a place Smith escapes to as he is tortured. There is nothing revolutionary about this cinematography—in fact, it could plausibly be argued that Radford, whose film debuted in December 1984, might have been highly influenced by the Ridley Scott-directed commercial for Apple computers that electrified a worldwide audience watching the 1984 Super Bowl 10 months earlier. It’s also possible that the two Brits merely compared notes in creating imagery and color schemes that were nearly identical for their renderings of Orwell’s world. I find it fascinating that an abstract landscape of rolling hills and sparse green trees Deakins and Radford composed for Smith’s oasis resembles a standard wallpaper image found on Microsoft PC monitors.

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The duplicity of all of the characters surrounding Smith is extremely well rendered by the film’s stellar cast. Hamilton’s Julia seems a passionate drone of the State, only to reveal startlingly her passion really lies in the pleasures of the flesh. Burton is so quiet in this, his last film role, that his betrayal of Smith comes as a genuine shock. Cyril Cusack is perfect as a symbol of a quaint, bygone era who preys on the nostalgia of Party members.

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And then there is Hurt in the performance of a career. He’s sweet, gullible, absolutely no match for the mechanics of his totalitarian world—and yet he cries out even in his worst moments, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” In the end, when Smith, unable to say anything unrelated to the Party sits at a dusty café table and draws “2 + 2 =” in the dirt, unable to finish, the poignancy of his suffering is almost too much to bear.

Naturally, there had to be a movie of 1984 in 1984. I’m glad it was this one. l

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    30th/10/2009 to 2:11 pm

    Based on what I remember reading in high school, I much prefer Terry Gilliam’s version of Orwell’s story when he called in Brazil. John Hurt is great, though. Thanks for burning the midnight oil to get this post done, Marilyn. I’m really glad that you participated in the blogathon.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/10/2009 to 2:15 pm

    I had to, Joe. You’re one of my favorites!

  • Yann spoke:
    30th/10/2009 to 2:58 pm

    Just a little technical/historical addition: 1984 was the feature film that popularized (it had been used before) the Bleach Bypass technique, we see in a lot of commercials and quite a few films nowadays.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/10/2009 to 3:46 pm

    Good information. So nice to have a film scholar in the house!

  • Greg F spoke:
    31st/10/2009 to 3:21 pm

    I like this movie too, especially after enduring an awful high school version I was in. I watched it again about a year ago by chance. It was on while I was checking what movies were on and I watched it through. It seemed better to me so many years later.
    And bleach-bypass in the extreme is a favorite of mine in photography. It’s pretty much all I do at my photo blog although I amp the exposure up much more than normal bleach-bypass processing does.

  • Yann spoke:
    3rd/11/2009 to 8:27 am

    Thanks Marilyn, but I’m more a practitioner than a scholar, picked that up in book on color correction. I’m trying to get through the fabulous “Oxford History of World Cinema” currently, though.

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