MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Sci-Fi Drama/ Stars: John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton, Cyril Cusack, Gregor Fisher, James Walker, Andrew Wilde/ Runtime: 113 minutes
I have found that it seems to always be difficult for Hollywood to make a proper movie adaptation of a novel be it classic or recent. Indeed this can often be attributed to a number of reasons from taking unnecessary liberties with the plot all the way to creating a movie that either doesn’t have the heart that the story does or doesn’t get in the slightest the story that it is an adaptation of. Trust me when I say that there are some like that, and boy does it show in every painstaking lumbering moment of celluloid (cough 1995’s Congo cough). Sadly while there are a great many adaptations that miss the mark, there are seldom few in this writer’s opinion that not only hit the mark, but hit it dead-on. Thankfully I’m here today to talk to you guys about the second adaptation of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984. I say thankfully because this is a movie adaption that nails the mark of what has made its source material absolutely timeless. Indeed, thanks to brilliant work from a game cast and crew, I would say that the 1984 version of 1984 (how apt) is one of the most haunting yet engaging and spot-on adaptations I have had the pleasure of watching unfold……that and it did inspire Apple’s classic commercial from around the same time period and that’s pretty cool too.
The plot is as follows: Set in an alternate-dystopian reality 1984, we are introduced quickly to the world of Oceania. Oceania is an omnipresent, totalitarian state ruled by “Big Brother” (not the reality show I’m afraid) and is in a seemingly permanent state of war, presently against Eurasia. Our tour guide through this madness and chaos is a seemingly ordinary man named Winston Smith. Winston is a drone worker in the Bureau of Information, and his job therein is to edit the news in accordance with the governing Party by utilizing the government’s unique language for news distribution. Indeed it really does seem like Winston’s whole existence is built on this world where there is truly seemingly no escape from a government with the capability to regiment every thought and deed of their subjects. Yet, although Winston abides by this, with the notable exception of recording his increasingly ambiguous thoughts regarding society in a hidden diary, it isn’t until he meets a strange young woman with similarly rebellious ideas that he is deeply attracted to named Julia that Winston finds his life changed forever. Of course in this world it should go without saying that it is also a change that only the all-seeing, and apparently all-knowing, eyes of Big Brother could horrifically and without mercy or a shred of humanity bring about….
Now the director of this film makes the wise choice early on to treat this film or its premise not as a sci-fi flight of fantasy or as a grim prophecy of sorts, but rather as a kind of medieval morality play for, what had become of the world by that particular time, the post-totalitarian age. Indeed to help make this possible, there is far less emphasis on the novel’s musty, well-worn-and-endlessly-picked-over polemical import and a significant increase of focus on the stark human element that is present. It is because of this emphasis switch that the cast is truly able to excel to the point that they bear such uncanny resemblance to Orwell’s descriptions of their respective characters that they it really does seem like each and every one of them was born for that particular role.
This of course starts with legendary actor John Hurt who, with a quiet, brooding eloquence and haunted eyes that find themselves peeking out of a gaunt, and almost cadaverous-in nature physical frame is perfectly cast as Winston Smith. Indeed Hurt does a wonderful job of playing Winston as someone who is subtle yet considerate in his observations of the world around him yet who by film’s end has learned that there is a cost to everything in this mad house, and that sometimes the cost is more than we are willing to pony up. Now as Winston’s romantic foil Julia, Suzanna Hamilton manages to bring a serene, arresting presence to the role to the extent that she appears as mysteriously stirring and beguiling to us as she does to Hurt. Indeed Hamilton manages to bring quite a captivating freshness and warmth to the character, and she and Hurt actually have decent chemistry in their scenes together so that by film’s end you’re actually quite heartbroken by where they both wind up. The big surprise of the cast though has to be screen legend Richard Burton as O’Brien. Indeed Burton may have been dealing with severe health issues while making this film, and he may have tragically passed away mere months after filming, but none of that manages to take away from what is a superb in all the right ways swan-song performance. Indeed in what is undoubtedly an exquisite, maliciously Swiftian twist of irony, it is such a treat to hear Burton’s famous voice, complete with rich Welsh baritone-level, become this cruel, unrelenting yet creepily calm and patient herald of the willful, systematic destruction of the human spirit.
Now I do feel that there is a problem with the film, but it’s a very selective problem. It is the fact that there will be people will watch this film after reading the book, and find the film, like its source material, too bleak and, at moments, horrific to really appreciate. Now I understanding where these people are coming from, but you must understand: for the movie to work as well as it does it couldn’t just skim the surface of what such a nightmarish world would be like; rather this is the kind of film where from the very beginning you must find yourself completely immersed in it, and even at the end you still aren’t free from it. Oh sure the credits may roll and you may move on to other movies or entertainment, but a part of you is still going to be in that world with those characters suffering as they do. Indeed it may be quite depressing to think about, but this is the horror of totalitarianism, and it’s a horror that the movie needed to get across, and manages to do a great job of doing so by putting you in this nightmarish world headfirst, and truth be told it’s not one that is going to end happy or even leave you feeling good about what you just saw. That is the power though of the motion picture medium when it comes to the stories that it chooses to tell/showcase for our “viewing pleasure”. Besides I don’t know if you know this or not, but not all stories come prepackaged with a happy ending. Sorry to burst your bubbles, but they just don’t. Accept it, roll with it, and just keep livin’
All in all it will definitely help you if you read the book before you see this movie, but ultimately what makes this adaption of George Orwell’s classic look into a dystopian nightmare work as well as it does isn’t just the efforts of the cast and crew or how loyal it is to the source material. Rather it’s the fact that 1984 “84” is such an impassioned and richly textured work that not only do the film’s visuals almost seem to seep into the pores of your skin, thereby intoxicating you with dread and longing, but it almost seems like what you are seeing actually could’ve been the world around us at one time. And THAT dear reader is perhaps the most frightening thing of all…..On a scale of 1-5 I give 1984 “84” a solid 3.5 out of 5.