More noise than signal


Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Continuing the theme of films titled with years, in which we must beware the savage roar of George Orwell’s 1984. This represents one of those fleetingly rare cases where I actually have read the source material. Although, I suspect even if you haven’t, you’re probably still going to be fairly familiar with the general gist of it, what with the whole “George Orwell being so prescient about aspects of human nature and technology that his surname became an adjective” thing. Let’s see if Michael Radford’s film can step out of the shadow cast by the source material.

The political map projection of 1984‘s world is rather less colourful than ours, with a series of ongoing conflicts leaving three supernations locked in a permanent war. In a bombed out part of what was London, now simply a sector of Airstrip One, the eastern edge of Oceania, which is predominantly the Americas, John Hurt’s Winston Smith goes about a necessarily austere life as a mid level Party apparatchik, a tool of the totalitarian rulers, altering historical records to fit with approved party lines and removing or “unpersoning” anyone no longer deemed suitable.

Now, as with the book, there is a narrative, largely driven by Winston’s illicit relationship with a fellow party member, Suzanna Hamilton’s Julia, where they commit the heinous crimes of love and free thought, from a base in the less tightly controlled proletariat areas, who are somewhat vaguely characterised as a mass of completely uninformed people kept entirely entertained by trivialities, presumably like some sort of post-apocalyptic reality TV. Eventually this is uncovered by the thought police, and they are taken away for a spot of light re-education slash mind breaking torture at the behest of party higherup, Richard Burton’s O’Brien.

It is, however, a narrative that raises far more questions than it answers. I’m not often one to harp on about plot holes, but not much about the Julia and O’Brien’s instigating actions make a great deal of sense, aside from them being useful to drive the plot along. A love based on narrative imperative, perhaps. But I suppose the point is not so critical given that the impossibility of expecting normal human reactions from the deeply inhuman system the characters find themselves in is sort of the overarching point of the work.

There’s a slew of dystopian tropes that were either born from or greatly popularised by 1984 – pervasive, intrusive surveillance, controlling the past to control the present, how controlling language can control expression, doublethink, thoughtcrimes, the two minute hate, and while I’d argue it’s the concepts and the language that’s the reason the novel has endured, Deakins made a good fist of the imagery of it to. I mean, when what’s widely regarded as one the of best adverts ever made is directly inspired by this, it surely has some place in the wider culture. The ominous form of the ever watching Big Brother, the contrast between the ruins of Airstrip One and the seemingly miraculously surviving green land that becomes a symbol of hope and freedom for Winston are standouts, alongside the general Fallout-ish post apocalyptia.

However at heart 1984 is more about the words than the visuals, and any film translation will struggle to capture that focus. I think Michael Radford and crew have done as well as can be expected on that front. The performances from Hurt, Hamilton and Burton are… well, weird. They’re not behaving and acting as normal human beings, which can come across as stilted, but the point is that their society isn’t letting them be normal human beings. Likewise when O’Brien is torturing Winston with the checked out air of a distracted bureaucrat, well again, it’s all intentional, I assume, but it does feel, well, weird.

So then, I suppose 1984 gets a mild recommendation, either for the interested or for those who don’t want to read the book, but it’s not essential viewing, and, well, the book knocks this into a cocked hat.

If nothing else, it’s good to see Rab C. Nesbitt on the big screen.