George Orwell's famous 1949 novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four" was given its mainstream celluloid representation by writer-director Michael Radford. It begins on a rather startling note, and for the uninitiated it might prove to be a taxing job registering what exactly is going on in the depressingly dark world the audience is led to via Radford's envisioning of Orwell's dystopian nightmare.
We are welcomed to a visibly unwelcome sight of hordes of people dressed in blue uniforms who appear to be prisoners but not in the conventional sense. Via some media clips on a large screen TV, they are subjected to an education about the totalitarian society they are a part of. Their state is called Oceania and it is governed by The Party, headed by Big Brother (Bob Flag) who appears as a menacing face all around buildings and streets, at homes and on desks. The Big Brother's steady gaze watches each individual in Oceania. In other words, every person is under constant surveillance. It is a state that seems to be constantly at war with the fictitious nations of Eurasia and Eastasia.
The captured enemy is executed publicly amid cheer and fanfare. What the society lives by however, is the thought imposed by the government or Big Brother! Any individual thought or attempt to change/modify/question is subject to persecution at the hands of the powers that be! Natural sex is prohibited and the concept of a family is slowly being eradicated! Males and females are made to refer to each other as brother or sister! Anyone who thinks outside of this system is deemed a thought criminal and the entity patrolling the environment to detect and do away with such thought criminals are the thought police! In the end, the goal of The Party is to change the mindset of any individual that dares to dissent, by means of mind control and brainwashing.
In such an atmosphere of total desensitization, one individual, Winston (John Hurt) dares to rebel by falling in love with Julia, an outer party member who seems to be selling herself in exchange for genuine food and goods that are a thing of the past for a normal citizen. Winston maintains a secret diary in which he pens his rebellious thoughts, thus becoming a thought criminal! Does love triumph over a rule of oppression?
Radford's film paints a very scary picture of a dystopian future in which the ruling government takes complete control of its subjects' minds and hearts. This is a place where bombings are commonplace, an atmosphere of war is perennial and power is established through pain and fear. People live in crummy apartments that are falling apart yet, hi-fi surveillance equipment is an important part of the design of any dwelling! The thought police can read one's mind and monitor one's actions. A possible threat in any form is immediately subjected to brainwashing and torture in order to eliminate any chance of a revolution or disagreement with the principles of The Party. It is a dark city where buildings are falling apart; any piece of decorative furniture is a historical souvenir.
Winston's character is of a physically weak, haggard exterior, but of a spirit that is undying and independent. He is perpetually perturbed with the scheme of things, what with his job full of lies, that of working for the press and rewriting history! He simply can't find himself coming to terms with how language and emotions are gradually being destroyed.
He questions the happenings as words become unwords, the size of a dictionary is seasonally reduced, dissenters become unpersons, and real food is substituted for some replica edible stuff! Nevertheless he dares to fall in love, and his optimistic face shows signs of some happiness amid fear while the rest of the folks around him continue to live under constant fear and paranoia. The object of his desire, Julia already appears to be a desensitized individual although some kind of strange attraction draws her to Winston's enigmatic personality. Both are held together by a strong bond, resilient to the conflicting forces around them; forces that do not approve of their relationship. Winston believes that betrayal by a forced confession is one thing, but what would really make them cease to be human beings is the betrayal of their feelings for each other!
Whether the authoritative forces of Oceania are capable of winning this battle of fear versus freedom (the individual freedom to say that two and two equals four, and the freedom to choose feelings over their worst fears), eventually forms the crux of this terrifying story. Playing a soft-spoken antagonist in this conflict of emotions and power is the great Richard Burton in his last film role. He personifies betrayal as you see him turn from a man of comforting words to a deadly oppressor.
"Nineteen Eighty Four" unfolds at a slow pace in the first half and in a sharp manoeuvre, takes a significantly disturbing turn in the last one-third. While it is commendable on the director's part to make the viewer quite uncomfortable watching what follows, it also appears to be a wrap-up exercise of sorts, especially owing to a limited development with regard to both characters and plot, leaving a clueless viewer deciphering what actually ensued eventually.
As some heavy dialog full of dictatorial jargon is exchanged, we are left wondering how did it suddenly come to this! Whilst the protagonist drifts in and out of dreams of a lush green utopia behind the notorious Room 101 (a term made famous by this very novel, by the way, among other terminologies and concepts, like Big Brother, 2+2 = 5, Newspeak), amidst turbulent moments of destruction, a disturbing third act comes to an abrupt halt with an ambiguous ending that could mean one of two things. This is still fine in the context of the events that just precede. However, a more fleshed out plot or chain of events carried forward with a steady pace, albeit with a longer length to encompass the evidently broader scope of the novel, could've given the film a more tangible shape.
Radford's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" works well, nevertheless, despite a slightly lacking screenplay, and credit goes to a tremendous act from an ever dependable John Hurt, a frightening manifestation of a bleak, apocalyptic future of humankind as we know it, and a hypnotic electronic soundtrack featuring the forgotten pop duo, Eurythmics.