Orwell's story is so well known that I will only sketch its outlines. 1984 is set in a world of perpetual war, where the government uses two-way screens to monitor its citizens and changes language and history for its own purpose. Winston Smith (John Hurt), a minor official in Oceana's Bureau of History, finds himself drawn first into thoughtcrime, then into sexcrime. He and his lover know they will eventually be caught, but can't help themselves. Eventually they are caught, and Smith is tortured and reprogrammed to think correctly.
Michael Radford, who wrote the screenplay in addition to directing, has done a superb job of bringing the nightmare world of 1984 to life. It is a world of shortages which may be real and which may be created, of mutable truth whose purpose is to destroy memory, of betrayal so ubiquitous that its occurrence is expected - the only possibility for surprise is its source. 1984 displays a world intentionally made poor, uncomfortable, dirty, and treacherous. Radford and his production team have visualized this world beautifully. There is no shining chrome or futuristic equipment. The streets resemble London after the Blitz, the interiors are drab and filthy. Even the viewing screens are shoddy. To match the oppressive atmosphere of the sets and lighting, Radford employs a slow, deliberate pacing which itself promises disaster to come.
The performances are excellent. John Hurt, as has been mentioned elsewhere, is almost too perfectly cast as Winston Smith. Hurt, living up to his name, has practically made an entire film career based on pain and suffering. He's played a long line of sadists, masochists, victims, and villains. Winston Smith, doomed from the beginning to torture, humiliation, and a final denial of self, is so firmly in the pattern that Hurt could have wound up almost as a caricature. Hurt underplays the role very nicely, though, and shows us Smith's moments of happiness which he believes will make up for the suffering to come. When the agony proves so great that he is willing, even eager to deny and betray anything, the memory of his mistaken belief adds an extra touch of poignance. Suzanna Hamilton is also fine as Smith's lover. Her sensuality is at sharp contrast to the bleak world around her, so that she seems to be the only living creature in it.
1984 contains Richard Burton's last film role. It is common to overpraise the final roles of great actors, especially when posthumous. There is no such danger here, as Burton cannot be overpraised for this portrayal. His role as O'Brien, Hurt's inquisitor, is key to the success of the second half of the film. Burton was simultaneous the most mythic and most human of actors. His flaws and his genius were always on full display for all to see. Thus, his brilliant portrayal of a man dedicated to the abolition of both humanity and mythology in favor of bland, unquestioning obedience is particularly disturbing. If 1984 is a horror film, then O'Brien is its monster, or at least its monster's avatar. Burton is absolutely terrifying as a man who will do anything to force conformity to the system. The underlying suggestion that this monster was created by the same process he now employs adds even more to the terror. The calm, reasonable, almost sympathetic way he destroys Winston Smith has the dreadful feel of a routine performed day in and day out. I have not seen a better performance this year.
The last few minutes of 1984 are particularly harrowing. Radford leads us to the brink of the smallest glimmer of hope, but leaves us only with maddeningly ambiguous signs. We want to believe that all is not desolation, and the possibility that something may be salvaged is not entirely ruled out, but Radford makes it almost impossible to believe that Big Brother's triumph is less than absolute. The glints of hope which almost certainly are illusory prove much more devastating than the stygian darkness of utter despair.
1984 is one of the most depressing films I have ever seen. It is also one of the most perfect. Perfection is not all in art, but when coupled with vision, it can lead to works of incredible power. 1984 is such a work. It is not for those who demand a good time from a film, or for those who do not want to think in the movies, or for those who are satisfied with nothing but a happy ending. Those expecting something more from a film, those not afraid to face up to the true dark side of human behavior (for governments' evil desires come from within us, not from some mystic outside force), those willing to face the logical conclusions of hopeless situations, will appreciate 1984 and perhaps, hopefully learn from it.
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