Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

War is Peace

Freedom is Slavery

Ignorance is Strength

Those are the verities of IngSoc.

Who controls the past controls the future.
Who controls the present controls the past.

That pair of sentences opens the 1984 production of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), the movie based on George Orwell’s landmark book about IngSoc, Oceania, Winston Smith and Big Brother.

The film begins showing a state-organized propaganda session which starts as a paean to the virtue of Oceania and its inhabitants. This gradually changes to a demonization of a foreign enemy and eventually evolves to a “hate” session for the vile and loathsome Goldstein, the enemy of Big Brother: “benevolent” ruler of Oceania.

The feel and flavor of the film are captured in the opening scenes. If you are looking for a “feel good” movie, don’t select 1984. This is the story of the bleak world in which Winston Smith (John Hurt) ekes out an existence working for the greater glory of IngSoc (English Socialism), Oceania (England, the Americas and the Pacific) and Big Brother. It is chilling and eerily familiar in some ways, but not in others. Our world does not have the physical desolation and lowered standard of living with which Orwell (and director Michael Radford) have imbued Winston Smith’s world. In that way, and in other ways which can be attributed to subtlety, Aldous Huxley’s vision in Brave New World may be closer to our world. However, in 1948 when Orwell wrote his book, history might have easily taken turns which could have brought this, and may still.

Winston’s daily life is horrible in its bland totalitarianism, as political correctness is taken to its extreme and logical conclusions. Winston works in records for MiniTrue (the Ministry of Truth). He rewrites history to reflect the reality of the party of IngSoc, replacing “unpersons” with created war heroes. Winston, like most characters in the movie, is an “outer party member.” He is not a member of the inner circle of power which actually controls Oceania.

Winston is an undiscovered “thought criminal.” He has thoughts of his own. He takes to jotting them down in a notebook which he acquired from a shop where he also buys poor quality but rare razor blades for shaving.

Winston eventually bumps into Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), a member of the anti-sex league (and sex criminal), who passes him a note proposing a meeting. They rendezvous in a beautiful country setting and commit their “crime.” The party severely disapproves of personal love as it continues the family which leads to thought crime. Winston and Julia take to meeting regularly in the room he rents from the shopkeeper (Cyril Cusack) above the small shop where Winston buys his blades and other odds and ends. Winston and Julia create lives apart from the party: thought crime.

O’Brien (Richard Burton), an “inner party member” (ruling class), contacts Winston ostensibly to lend him a copy of a new dictionary. At a meeting in which Winston discovers that inner party members live quite differently than he does, O’Brien gives him a book. The book appears to be the dictionary, but actually also contains Goldstein’s book “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.”

Now all the major characters are introduced and the story can develop, but to tell more of the story here would be to say too much. All the cast, even those with small parts, give superlative performances. Richard Burton is outstanding as O’Brien in the last performance of his long and illustrious career. John Hurt is also excellent as Winston. The depiction of the mentality of totalitarianism is insightful and terrifying. Of course, as is usual, there are more ideas developed in the book. However, I don’t think this movie could be improved without significant advances in movie technology. If you have enjoyed Orwell’s great novel or never read the book, this production puts Nineteen Eighty-Four in visual terms as well as any movie could.

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