Blu-ray Review: 1984 (Criterion Collection)

Michael Radford’s 1984 is a rather faithful retelling of George Orwell’s novel of the same name. Published in 1948, 1984 predicts the fall of Western Culture. In the year 1984, civilization has been decimated by war and civil unrest. Oceana is the last thriving totalitarian superstate in the world. Ruled by the Party under the leadership of Big Brother, the Party uses Thought Police and constant surveillance to destroy anyone who doesn’t fully comply with the strict rules.

Winston Smith (John Hurt, Watership Down), works at the Ministry of Truth. His job is to “rectify” the historical record, so they are in in line with Big Brother’s version of events. Haunted by painful memories and feelings of restlessness, Winston keeps a diary, though this is strongly prohibited. Any sort of art, or expression of love is forbidden. ‘Free’ time is spent worshipping Big Brother and shouting abuse at whomever they’re at war with at the time. Lately, Winston has been catching the eye of fellow Party member, Julia (Suzanna Hamilton, Tess). The two form a bond and engage in a secret, forbidden relationship. Smith obtains an apartment in the less restrictive proletarian area where they meet to make love, eat contraband food and read books. They both know it’s inevitable that someday they will be caught.

Though their life together only lasts a few months, ending when the Thought Police raid the apartment, Julia gave Winston a ray of hope, a taste of freedom he never imagined. Before meeting her, Winston was simply going through the motions, together with Julia, he was willing to risk it all for a semblance of a normalcy. Having studied Orwell’s 1984 as part of master’s degree, I have seen the 1954, 1956, and this 1984 version, multiple times. It is easily this version that resonates the most, not only because as noted earlier, director Michael sticks so closely to the novel, but John Hurt is so perfectly cast. His haggard look, slight figure and halting speech suggests a man that’s been beaten down by a brutal system.

1984 was the last screen appearance for Richard Burton (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) who died two months before the release of the film. As O’Brien, a high-ranking member of the Party responsible for doling out Winston’s psychological punishment and changing his views on the Party. Speaking calmly at first, O’Brien attempts to reason with Winston before deploying much harsher methods. We know O’Brien won’t stop until he’s broken Winston’s spirit, but the sense of authority and feeling of authenticity Burton brings to the role makes it a terrifying, yet interesting face-off.

Radford (with help from noted cinematographer Roger Deakins), creates a dystopia, just like the one described in the novel. A truly grim atmosphere, the buildings are decaying masses of concrete and steel, bombed out shells left to rot away. The sun is nowhere in evidence, the air thick with black smoke and debris. The opening scenes set the tone, as a crowd of thousands watches propaganda on a huge screen. Worked into a zombie-like frenzy by film clips of devastation interspersed with images of the enemy state, Goldstein (John Boswall), the crowd cheers as if at a rock concert when the Oceanic flag and close ups of Big Brother appear. Everyday life is regimented sameness.

A powerful achievement, to date, Radford’s film is the definitive screen adaptation of Orwell’s classic novel. Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release features a new 4K digital restoration supervised by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, colors have been desaturated to create a duller appearance. Flesh tones look appropriately pale and detail is sharp in closeups, particularly the stubble and wrinkles on John Hurt’s face. The color palette is dark, yet dull, apart from the lush countryside during Julia and Winston’s first private meeting, the red sash around the women workers’ waists and the red lipstick on Julia in the secret apartment.

Criterion gives us two LPCM mono tracks featuring different scores. One has the moody score by Dominic Muldowney, the other, the electronic synth score by Eurythmics. It’s impossible to say which is better, as there both very different. Each offer a nice balance between music and dialogue, though Muldowney’s score does sound a bit fuller.

English SDH subtitles are included.

The following extras are available:

  • Interview with Director Michael Radford (HD, 22:11) Conducted exclusively for Criterion in March 2019, Radford discusses his work with cinematographer Roger Deakins on the film and how different sequences were shot. The scoring of the film and disagreements he had with the Eurythmics.
  • Interview with Cinematographer Roger Deakins (HD, 20:24) Recorded exclusively for Criterion in March 2019, Deakins discusses preparations for work on the film, the various discussions he had with Michael Radford, working with Richard Burton, supervising this restoration and more.
  • Interview with David Ryan (HD, 21:42) Recorded exclusively for Criterion in March 2019, David Ryan author of “George Orwell on Screen” discusses some of the political themes and overtones in 1984, notable differences between Radford’s film and earlier adaptations, the visual style of the film, casting and more.
  • Behind-the-Scenes (HD, 4:42) Footage from the production featuring interviews with Michael Radford, John Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton.
  • Trailer (HD, 2:20)
  • Leaflet: An illustrated leaflet featuring writer and critic A.I. Kennedy’s essay “Coming Soon to a Country Near You.”

1984 (1984)

Movie title: 1984

Director(s): Michael Radford

Actor(s): John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton, Cyril Cusack , Gregor Fisher , James Walker

Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi

  • Movie
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras

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