For well over an hour of Nineteen Eighty-Four, nothing much happens. John Hurt edits articles, writes in his journal, does his exercises, talks to people, meets a girl… I suppose the romance should have accelerated Nineteen Eighty-Four’s pace or gotten it moving, but it really didn’t. Instead, the film just continued on its gradual pace. More than any other film I’ve watched on video–not seen projected, but had stop and start control over–Nineteen Eighty-Four just played on, like I was powerless to stop it. While the film is mediocre, Radford’s got some great visuals, Roger Deakins shooting it, and incredible production design, but it never feels like a film. It never feels like a two dimensional experience. For that first hour and twenty minutes, the film is captivating.
Then, instead of being a story about an average guy, it becomes a story of an average guy in trouble. Obviously, this plot development is from the novel, so it’s not fair to gripe about Radford’s adherence to it, but he really didn’t have any excuse to make the first part so lullingly compelling and the conclusion so uninteresting. For the first part, I never thought of another film. In the second–Radford borrows its fades so what choice did I have but remember it–comparisons to THX 1138 started popping up in my mind. There’s a terrible–painful to watch–torture sequence and it actually re-orientates the film. Radford gets his pacing back, something he lost for ten or fifteen minutes. It might be the conclusion’s settings. They’re all inside. Nineteen Eighty-Four worked best when there was some daylight coming in.
I imagine the novel explains a bit more of the setting (from a glance at the Wikipedia article, I can tell it does), but it doesn’t matter in the film. Radford does an excellent job of making understanding what’s going on irrelevant to the film. He gets a lot of help from John Hurt, who’s perfect in the passive role. Hurt’s the reason the film’s so compelling while maintaining such a distance. As the love interest, Suzanna Hamilton is excellent too. Somehow, though, I knew she hadn’t gone on to anything. She was so good she’d either have to have disappeared or be recognizable. The film’s powerhouse performance (and yes, I did think about that adjective before using it) is Richard Burton as the torturer. Burton’s great.
In the end, my reaction to Nineteen Eighty-Four is entirely blasé and I’m sure that reaction isn’t the one I’m supposed to be having….
Directed by Michael Radford; screenplay by Radford, based on the novel by George Orwell; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Tom Priestley; music by Dominic Muldowney; production designer, Allan Cameron; produced by Simon Perry; released by Atlantic Releasing Corporation.
Starring John Hurt (Winston Smith), Richard Burton (O’Brien), Suzanna Hamilton (Julia), Cyril Cusack (Charrington), Gregor Fisher (Parsons), James Walker (Syme), Andrew Wilde (Tillotson) and David Trevena (Tillotson’s Friend).