Truly great novels which have their greatness translated to the screen are pretty rare. Women in Love? Absolutely. The Handmaid’s Tale? Praise be. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? Och aye! It’s a brave filmmaker who takes such a task on and, in 1984, Michael Radford, a few years before international acclaim hit him with Il Postino, made a film version of one of greatest novels of all time, 1984.
It’s is a very timely release (as part of HMV’s exclusive Premium Collection), given what’s going on in the world right now, but can it live up to the masterpiece from which it was adapted? In short, the answer is no. But it makes a damn good crack at it.
John Hurt plays Winston Smith, a sickly man who spends his days re-writing history for the benefit of The Party - if they say something didn’t happen, that someone didn’t exist, it’s gone. In this world where war is continuous, where love is a crime, where thinking the wrong thing can get you tortured, he risks everything for an affair with Julia. But Big Brother is always watching…
This is a faithful and respectful translation of George Orwell’s prescient and continuously relevant novel. It looks perfect (Roger Deakins’ is behind the lens), the decrepit sets, bleak locations, worn costumes, emaciating makeup all bring to life the pages many of us read at school. The script, which Radford also adapted, somehow manages to bring complex ideas to the surface, taking its time, a cerebral rather than emotional piece of writing. As for the cast, John Hurt is the perfect Winston Smith, as gaunt and hopeless as could be, his scenes in the latter part of the film painful to watch. In his final film role, Richard Burton underplays so much that he’s absolutely horrifying as the calm but determined torturer O’Brien, reminding you of what a truly great actor he was. And as Julia, Suzanna Hamilton shines - why she didn’t become a huge star is a mystery because she’s superb.
And yet, it’s partly because of the respect for the intellectual nature of the novel that it all feels a little staid, a bit one-note, somewhat unexciting. Such is the issue with bringing to life a book about ideas; celebrated as one of the best ever written.
There’s also a distracting Eurythmics score that was tacked on by backers Virgin, much to the annoyance of Radford, which sits ill with the rest of the film.
The disc contains no extras (apart from some postcards), which is annoying and the Blu-ray transfer doesn’t really improve on previous DVD releases either.
So, a film to admire, rather than love, from a book to treasure.
1984 / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: MICHAEL RADFORD / STARRING: JOHN HURT, RICHARD BURTON, SUZANNA HAMILTON / RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 13TH (HMV EXCLUSIVE)