This review is an attempt to excise the parts of this film that haunt me. It's tough for me to write, it may well be tough for you to read. Perhaps you should just leave now and not chance it.
I’m getting old, I guess. I saw this film in 1986 when I was 19, and it didn’t bother me at all, but seeing it last night really messed me up. I kept ruminating on it, it made me nervous and scared. I ended up watching “Our Man Flint” just hoping the stupidness of it would wash the icky qualities of the other movie from my mind, but, no. Eventually got to sleep, had bad dreams, though they didn’t seem *directly* tied to the film, I think they were motivated by it. I can’t really remember them. Usually, when something scares me, my brain resets overnight, and I’m fine, but this is still nagging at me, still bothering me, still making me feel vaguely unsafe. Why? We’ll get to that below.
In the meantime, you know pretty much what you need to know already: This is a bleak and oppressive film version of a bleak and oppressive book. It is hopeless, and revels in its hopelessness. It is an extremely literal interpretation, with no major digressions or conflations from the novel that I can recall, though a number of scenes were deleted, none to any great effect. (For instance, the sequence where Winston attempts to find out what the pre-war world is like by getting an old man drunk, only to discover the guy is senile and can’t remember is missing.) Though there were several film and TV adaptations prior to this one, there haven’t been any since, almost as though by common agreement this is the definitive one. I think it probably is. I can’t think of any way to improve it, or do it differently. Indeed, everything about it is perfect, the cast, the sets, the general awfulness, the unblinking long shots of awfulness and misery, and the equally unblinking looks at the strangely empty moments of happiness. It’s a lot to bear.
The plot: Winston Smith (John Hurt) is a minor member of “The Party” in a country that is at perpetual war with the only other two countries on earth. The department of the government he works for basically changes historical records when no one’s looking, rewriting the past to make The Party and it’s leader Big Brother appear omnipotent and wise. Realizing their history is a tissue of lies, Winston keeps a diary in which he records real events. Eventually he meets a girl named “Julia” (Suzanna Hamilton) and the two of them have an affair. She’s had lots of affairs, but this is his first. Such things are against the law, as sex apart from procreation is considered a crime and the government is attempting to phase out the family and shift over to artificial insemination exclusively. Winston is approached by an inner party official named O’Brian (Richard Burton) who is himself a secret rebel, and who gives Winston a copy of a forbidden book that explains the true nature of their world. Winston and Julia fancy themselves rebels, and rent a secret room in an antique shop in the Proletarian part of town. They swear their love to each other, swear to be true, swear never to betray each other in their hearts, though they both know they’ll likely be caught eventually. Turns out O’Brian set them up. He was actively trolling for dissidents all along. The final third of the movie is just O’Brian torturing Winston and explaining how hopeless everything is, up until he forces him to face his greatest fear, at which point he completely snaps, and betrays Julia mind, body, and spirit (“Whatever you’re going to do, do it to her! Do it to Julia”), and he’s theirs. Flash forward a year or so, and he’s confessed to a generic list of crimes, most of which he didn’t commit. He’s been released to show everyone how merciful and great the party is, how futile rebellion is as he goes about demonstrating his love for Big Brother. He meets Julia, who he now feels nothing for, and she feels nothing for him either, but then how could she? Obviously they must have done the same things to her. In any event, he longs for death for his crimes, and we’re assured it will come. We end with him weeping over some bit of manufactured news, realizing that he believes it. The book ends with the words “He loved Big Brother.” That’s chilling, but I think what resonates more with me in the movie than in the book is that the movie really drives home more than that: That where there used to be a man named Winston Smith, there’s just a thing in the shape of a man. Winston is gone.
In many ways, the movie is better than the book, if we’re honest. I’ve always found Orwell to be a rather dry writer. He was doing most of his work right at the cusp when “English Literature” became basically an American thing, and everything neat and exciting and innovative and cool and sexy was being done here. Orwell is rather stolid by comparison, though he’s good. The movie sidesteps idiom and goes straight for the bone. It’s one thing to read about the smell of boiled cabbages and stagnant water in the neighbor’s apartment, it’s quite another to *See* the squalor. (Though in neither case do we actually smell the cabbage). This is an ugly, ugly, ugly movie, and deliberately so. One would say that the imagination can conjure up more awfulness than art could show, based solely on description. True, but the mind tends to work in macros: If we read “It’s a rundown apartment” we just file it away as such, and don’t think too much about it beyond that. In this, seeing exactly how awful everything is in every unrelenting scene, with even the gee-gosh-wow stuff like the wall TVs and the pyramidal government buildings rendered in fetid, utilitarian, cumbersome low-tech fashion, well, as I said, this is a movie that revels in its own hopelessness.
There were no surprises here. I’ve read the book, I’ve seen the movie, it was just as I remembered. So why did it mess me up so bad? Certainly it can’t be political. Communism - of the sort depicted here - is long since dead and gone. Industrial strength oppression depicted as in here? I’m long since desensitized to that, thanks. Scary ideas? Please! I’ve written some pretty bleak, scary short stories. This is nothing. Scary pictures? I’m not the kind to be afraid of stuff in movies, and even if I was, what’s there to scare me here? The fact is I’ve seen far more brutal, gory, vicious movies. The torture is pretty mild as these things go, at least physically.
I don’t know. I’ve had a rough life these past few years. Is it because of my brush with madness back in ‘09? Is it because I’m a bit unhinged now, but not aware of it for some reason? Probably not. I’m medicated and pretty level-headed, all things considered. Is my own poor health and the poor health of my family? Our poverty? Do I identify a bit too much with Winston (Himself portrayed as sickly in the book, but glossed over in the film) as a result? Is it the death that has surrounded me lately? George, my guitar player, dropping dead of a seizure? My uncle? My dad suffering a brain injury on Christmas Eve and dying six days later? My father in law dying two weeks back after a prolonged and awful illness? Is it one of my best friends, Mark, dying slowly and horribly by degrees while all I can do is watch? Is it all of these? Probably. Probably. Though if we want to be visual, I think Hurt’s appearance in the torture scenes haunts me so much because of Mark. It didn’t shake me up at all when I was 19, but what does a 19-year-old know of illness, death, being robbed of yourself by degrees? Nothing. I was an arrogant bastard back then. That’s why it didn’t shake me up. Perhaps that’s the real question: Why *didn’t* it bother me then?
Part of it, I think, is that Burton and Hurt are freakin’ amazing actors, and they totally sell it. The scenes of Winston alternately screaming in pain and lovingly cradled by O’Brian are really disturbing to me in their juxtaposition. The cuts to a lovely wooded scene as Winston’s mind begins to fuzz under the onslaught are also effective, but something about the way Hurt tries to hold on to his impotent, useless, defeated humanity, and the dead-eyed formally compassionate way Burton smashes him, well, they sell it. It’s hard to watch. I wish I hadn’t watched it. Example:
Winston [Suicidal]: “When will you shoot me?”
O’Brian: “It may be a long while yet. But don’t give up hope. Everyone is cured eventually.”
The scene that I can’t get out of my head, the one I want out of my head, the one I’m writing in hopes of exorcising, is this: Winston holds out hope that something somewhere will eventually defeat the party and liberate humanity. O’Brian asks what. Winston admits he doesn’t know, and suggests “The spirit of man.” He’s been tortured for several weeks by this point. O’Brian lets him off the table and brings him over to a water-damaged mirror, where he sees himself: shave-headed, too thin, gaunt as an AIDS patient, unable to stand up straight, unable to even fully close his mouth or speak terribly clearly.
“Look at what you’ve come to,” O’Brian says, standing next to him in the mirror, “You’re rotting apart. There’s your spirit of man.” Then, just as casually as you’d pull an errant thread off a friend’s shirt, he reaches into Winston’s mouth and pulls out a tooth. Winston screams in pain, but he’s so far gone he can just manage a kind of sobbing gurgle, and he splutters out “You’re the one who’s reduced me to this.” O’Brian disagrees, and says that Winston brought it on himself.
It’s hard for me not to see Mark in that, hard for me not to see others I’ve lost, we’ve lost, though I find I can’t actually bring myself to name them. It’s hard not to feel the tide of darkness I fight against pretty much every day rise a bit higher along my legs when I see that. When I think about it. And being me, I can’t *not* think about it. So: here we are. Maybe I can talk it out. Maybe that’ll help.
And I think part of it is that I’m a Christian. Years ago, back when I was a fundamentalist, I just naturally assumed this kind of awfulness was what waited for those who were left behind when the Rapture came. Being me, I was the kind of fundamentalist who’s fear and trembling left me no doubts that I’d be one of the ones left behind. Why? I don’t know, I just knew. I’m better now, but I wasn’t better then, and I think that’s perhaps the point.
I’ve written on occasion of how I don’t like nostalgia in general, but I do really like finding things that I loved as a kid, but have since had no exposure to. Rather famously, I once wrote about how watching “Man from Atlantis,” a show I hadn’t seen since it first aired, and then only perhaps a few times. Terrible show, but watching it brought back so many vivid flashbacks - the scratchy polyester shirt I was wearing, the feel of the shag rug as I sat on the floor watching, my mom complaining about me not doing my homework, and my dad defending me, the fact that I had a math test the next day that I’d not studied for. Being crazy excited and unable to wait to discuss the show with Mike Brooks and John Polson at school the next day. The twisty, stunted liveoaks at school where we actually talked about such things, the smell of my workbooks, all these flooded back in. As I put it a while back, “It was like I was in the room with my eleven-year-old self.” Beyond that, I could *remember* what it was like to be eleven from the inside, which is not a trick I can generally pull off, certainly not one I can maintain for long.
I think that’s what happened here: I had a flashback to my Fundamentalist days, when I just assumed I’d end up abandoned on earth, imprisoned for my beliefs, tortured, and ultimately beaten. Again, I just knew I’d be beaten. I just knew I’d betray everyone. It was just a question of how long I could hold out before I finally snapped, gave in. Not long. Not long. So basically I think I had a flashback, not of me as a 19-year-old, when such things had already started to abate, but a flashback of fear, of total, hopeless, oppressive fear. The sort I used to live under, the sort that drove me out from Faith, the sort I eventually lost and which brought me back, and, of course, the sort that I spent most of the last quarter century driving so far underground in my mind that I’d mostly forgotten it existed.
And then I watch this movie and trip over the latch - tah-dah - my fear springs out again, and I am truly afraid in the way that only a kid can be truly afraid, with every aspect of my being. Of course I’m an adult - and a well-medicated one - so I can reason this down (Which is what I’m trying to do here) - but fires can still do a whole lot of damage before the sprinklers kick in, you know? And it’s not like the sprinklers don’t hurt anything either. So: I’m haunted.
But I do think this helped. Thanks.
I used to have the soundtrack to this by the Eurythmics. It had two of my all-time favorite tracks by them, “Sex Crime” and “Doubleplusgood.” Sex crime was the obligatory single, and wasn’t actually in the movie, but I remembered the Eurythmics being all through the film. I was surprised by how little of their soundtrack was actually on here, just some snippets fading in and out in a few sequences, and the song “Julia” over the closing credits. In fact, there’s probably less Eurythmics in this movie than there is Prince in the soundtrack for Batman.
The *actual* score was done by Dominic Muldowney, most of which was pulled by the studio - over the objections of the director - and the Eurythmics stuff was inserted. About a decade ago, most of the Eurythmics stuff was pulled and the movie was re-scored with the original soundtrack. I suspect that may be the version I saw last night, but I’m not entirely sure since, as I said, there definitely was some Eurythmics stuff in here. Perhaps my memories are wrong, or perhaps there was a second audio cut as it were. Dunno. In any event, this reviewing has probably ruined my ability to like either of those tracks ever again.
This was Richard Burton’s last film. He dropped dead of a brain hemmorage just a few weeks after filming wrapped, and two months before the film opened.
As a probably ill-conceived publicity stunt, the movie was rushed through production and actually filmed in 1984 on the dates during which the bulk of the novel took place. Not that they needed the postproduction time, but it still seems like a lot of extra work for no real payoff, and obviously it meant the movie had to come out late in the year. I mean, it didn’t open in the ‘States until December of ‘84. Seems to me it would have been more profitable to make the flick a year early and release it in early in ‘84, you know?
Visually, the one part of the film that distracted me a bit was O’Brian’s office, which seems a little too big, a little too clean, a little too overtly fascist. Yes, the Inner Party has things better than the Outer, but I never got the impression anyone had quite that level of privilege.
There’s a surprising amount of nudity in the movie, mostly of Suzanna Hamilton, but also a bit of Hurt. This follows the book, in that the middle third is all about Julia and Winston’s affair, and they spend a lot of time having sex and wandering around naked. Under normal circumstances, I probably wouldn’t find it gratuitous, but here I’m undecided as the movie kind of messed me up. I can’t even decide if Hamilton is pretty or not. I mean, intellectually, yes, I recognize that she meets the specific numerical requirements for attractiveness (Despite being more hirsute than would be tolerated in an American film in those days, or in a British film nowadays), but I can’t decide if she’s too pretty to be Julia and they’re just flaunting it, or if maybe she’s not really pretty enough, since she’s the most beautiful thing Winston’s ever seen in his life. (though he has little concept of beauty to base it on). It’s a hard call. It shouldn’t be, but as I said, the movie messed me up.
That’s it, really. That’s all I’ve got. Thanks for letting me work my way through it.
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?
I'm really too messed up to think about it, but generally we like 1984 as a cautionary example. I do think "Like" is too strong a word, though, this is a deliberately unlikable film, not one we could easily support or even hope to utilize as propaganda. This is as misanthropic as it comes. So "Like?"
That's a lot to ask.