Released by: Twilight Time Releasing:
Released on: January, 2016.
Director: Michael Radford
Cast: John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton, Cyril Cusack, Gregor Fisher
Year: 1984 Purchase From Screen Archives
Michael Radford's film adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 initially had a slight air of contrivance surrounding it. Made in the year that the once futuristic novel was staged in, it even closes with the following credit: "The movie was filmed during April, May and June 1984. The picture's closing credits declare that "this film was photographed in and around London during the period April-June 1984, the exact time and setting imagined by the author." But while this is an interesting aspect of the production, it actually has little bearing on the film's success in the grand scheme of things.
Orwell's widow signed off on the rights to the producers to make this film months before her death. She had despised the first film version from 1956 and was concerned that any new version would use sci-fi effects to turn the narrative into dystopian kitsch. She needn't have worried however. Radford's film is beautiful and haunting yet austere. It contains grandiose imagery but also captures a horrifying squalidity. This is a grim and powerful dramatic endeavor that does justice to its source material.
In lieu of a plot synopsis, I would suggest that anyone not familiar with Orwell's novel should read it as soon as possible. 1984 is the tale of an ordinary man who's job is to craft propaganda and rewrite history for The State in a dank office cubicle deep in the bowels of a bombed out city. After he attempts to act out on his quietly anti-authoritarian views, he is betrayed by an acquaintance and becomes trapped in the gears of a totalitarian state. 1984 remains one of the most potent meditations on the importance of free thought and the evils of the draconian mindset. Cited endlessly by the political left and the right to suit their own agendas, the truth is that this is not a work endorsing or condemning a particular ideology - it's fundamentally a treatise on human dignity that also happens to be a scathing attack on the abuses of propaganda. Whether it's Nazis with "Work Will Set You Free" signs swinging in the breeze over concentration camps or the Soviets with their anti-intellectual slogans, Orwell's concepts of "doublethink" and "thoughtcrime," amongst others, resonate even more strongly today. And its warnings concerning the runaway surveillance state chill more deeply than ever.
John Hurt (ALIEN) was the ideal choice to play the film's protagonist Winston Smith. With his naturalistic acting style, fantastically weathered face and doleful countenance, Hurt positively bleeds the crushed 'everyman' type. Suzanna Hamilton's Julia, as the young woman Hurt's rebellious worker drone falls in love with, is also pitch perfect. The war orphan is pretty but shows the strain of her arduous existence. Then there's the final piece of the puzzle. The legendary Richard Burton in his final screen performance looking decades older than his 58 years. As the duplicitous instrument of The State's power, his calmness is utterly terrifying. It may have been hell to film (Burton was in both ill health and exhibiting an inability to remember his lines, requiring multiple takes), but the final result was stupendous. Burton the actor, in his horrifying scenes torturing the hapless Smith, gets to a dark place that we all recognize. We despise his actions yet understand why he's doing them. As Hurt screams "What do you want me to do?," Burton, in that magnificent voice of his replies "You will do what is required of you." Indeed.
1984 has a very distinctive de-saturated look to it, and as such, was always going to be a tricky beast to bring to the HD format well. But there's good news here. Twilight Time's 1.85:1. framed 1080p AVC encoded presentation does a marvelous job of highlighting fine detail whilst balancing a sometimes rambunctious grain field. The film's "cathode ray" aesthetic emerges unscathed. Pay particular attention to the facial closeups. While everyone tends to look quite pallid, the weathered visages of Hurt and Burton have fantastic clarity. Nothing in 1984 pops visually - even in the few scenes filmed in the verdant countryside. But that was always the intent of cinematographer Roger Deakins and director Radford. Detail in the many grim vistas of hollowed out cities and crumbling infrastructure is often stunning. The film's WWII Stalingrad 'look" is captured in all its hideous glory. Black levels, probably the most potentially problematic aspect of this transfer, are also well handled. Finally, there is no visible digital manipulation of the image that I could see.
As far as audio goes, the soundtrack Gods of Twilight Time have provided us with a true bounty: twin DTS-HD Master Audio Mono tracks with both the originally planned Dominic Muldowney score and the later cobbled together version which mixed music by pop act THE EURYTHMICS with Muldowney's traditional orchestral work. This was actually quite the brouhaha back in the day with THE EURYTHMICS' score being a bit of behind the scenes skullduggery involving Virgin Film's replacing the all Muldowney work behind Radford's back. Radford went predictably ballistic but Virgin stuck to their guns and the film, for most of its release history, featured only the "pop" score which is most recognizable by the closing song that plays over the credits. Twilight Time's Blu ray defaults to the orchestral score but anyone wanting to flip to the more familiar track can do so easily. Fidelity on both tracks is excellent despite the mono limitations.
The only real extra is another audio bonus - a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track of THE EURYTHMICS' score. This is a bit beefier than the other version and well worth a listen for soundtrack fans. You also get the film's theatrical trailer and the MGM 90th Anniversary reel we've gotten used to. Finally, there are also an excellent and incisive set of Julie Kirgo liner notes. I could describe them to you or you could just read them. I'd suggest the latter. Julie has been adding value to a Twilight Time's releases for quite a while and is always worth your time.
The Final Word:
Bleak. Brilliant. Unrelenting. Definitive. These are all words I would use to describe this film version of Orwell's famous book. Containing a heady brew of stellar performances and superb set design and excellent cinematography, Michael Radford's 1984 gets my most enthusiastic recommendation. And while I certainly would have liked a commentary track, the audio soundtrack supplements are extremely welcome and qualify as high end extras. Head on over to Screen Archives or Twilight Time Movies and place your order folks.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!