Review: '1984'

John Hurt turns in excellent performance in film version of Orwell's dystopian classic
George Orwell's dystopian vision seems more prescient with every passing day.

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."

R; 113 Min.

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