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