Criterion Review: George Orwell’s 1984

The dystopic tale remains as disturbing as ever

Dystopic fare has always had its place within cinema, but of late the real world has been a little too tinged with the prescience of authors such as George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, or Margaret Atwood. What once seemed a unlikely, far off warning now seemingly creeps into our everyday lives, adding to the weariness and fear that broods over us. So it’s a perfect time for Criterion to give a makeover to the dystopian daddy (big brother?) of them all, 1984.


This masterly adaptation of George Orwell’s chilling parable about totalitarian oppression gives harrowing cinematic expression to the book’s prophetic dystopia. In a rubble-strewn surveillance state where an endless overseas war props up the repressive regime of the all-seeing Big Brother, and all dissent is promptly squashed, a profoundly alienated citizen, Winston Smith (thrillingly played by John Hurt), risks everything for an illicit affair with the rebellious Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), defiantly asserting his humanity in the face of soul-crushing conformity. Through vividly grim production design and expressionistically desaturated cinematography by Roger Deakins, Michael Radford’s 1984 conjures a bleak vision of postwar Britain as fascistic nightmare — a world all too recognizable as our own.

While 1984 looks to a grim future, or at least it did when the book was first released in 1949, it draws from George Orwell’s experiences in post-World War II England — a bleak time when darkness, desolation, and uncertainty still pervaded that part of the world. It wasn’t so much science fiction as an exaggeration, a commentary on the era and direction Orwell saw the state was heading in. In this way it is startlingly prescient and offers a chilling warning even today about how a government can adopt totalitarian aspirations and whip up fears to tighten their grip on a society.

The setting is a region of Oceania that was formerly the British Isles, which is now know as ‘Airstrip One’, reflecting its status as a military complex. The land is subjected to the constant broadcasting of victories and defeats against whomever the country is at war with that week. Fear ensures loyalty; emotion is only stirred by the propaganda-heavy announcements to the poor huddled masses. “The Party” and its all-seeing, all-powerful dictator Big Brother, his visage peering down across the land, have broken the people in every conceivable sense. Winston’s job, redacting history to more accurately represent the current state of affairs within the regime, includes removing people from documents and photos after they have fallen out of favor. As another measure of control, The Party changes the past to tighten their grip on the future. Perhaps it is this insight into their fallibility that sends Winston down his path of thoughtcrime and beginning a liason with coworker Julia (Suzanna Hamilton). Much of the emotion and hardship of the tale rests on the talents of John Hurt. He gives a magnificent performance, beaten down but not broken, resolute and eventually liberated before the final act comes crashing down on him. Hamilton shows a conviction to match, and her fiery Julia is the perfect thing to help fan the flame of rebellion in Hurt’s Winston. Richard Burton, here in his final film role, brings the gravitas and intrigue necessary for O’Brien, a high ranking party official who may or may not be a fellow enemy of the state.

It’s disconcerting tale, but what elevates it are the details and world-building, something admirably conveyed from page to screen by director Michael Radford. A stark grey future, deprived of all warmth, embraces the feel of dereliction and stagnation with lingering remnants of older technologies to reflect that this advanced society has gone backwards in many ways, often juxtaposing the industrial creep and decay left by perpetual conflict with the remnants of England’s green and pleasant land. The language, the oversight, settle you into the drudgery of this life, while seeping in the true horrors of this existence. Room 101, Big Brother, Thought Police, and even the term “Orwellian” have ingrained themselves into our culture and political language, undoubtedly assisted by this fine adaptation.

The Package

Reflecting the dystopian setting, 1984 is a rather somber affair visually, channeling the exceptional talents of cinematographer Roger Deakins to create a desaturated world, devoid of vibrancy as well as freedom. The Criterion release, stemming from a new 4K restoration, shows off this subdued look along with impressive detail and image consistency throughout. Those angsty, hopeless faces of Oceana have been so well defined. Extra features are pretty well represented as you’d expect from Criterion:

  • Two scores — one electronic by Eurythmics and one orchestral by composer Dominic Muldowney: Both scores created for the film are included.
  • New interviews with director Michael Radford: 1984 was the first feature for the director, so much of his insights lean in towards that experience, as well as the actual production process. The ‘look’ of the film, as well as the cast selection and their relationships during filming, also get discussed.
  • New interviews with cinematographer Roger Deakins: The legendary DP, who usually leaves viewers gasping at the gorgeous imagery he helps create, breaks down his approach for the more sombre world building of Orwell. Technical approaches including how select scenes were setup, and some old school techniques, all make this a great watch for a cinephile.
  • New interview with David Ryan, author of George Orwell on Screen: The author breaks down the political aspects of the tale, how it resonates with different people in different ways depending on their ideologies, as well as how other attempts to adapt the book have fared over the years.
  • Behind-the-scenes footage: Some cut scenes as well as interviews with Hurt, Radford, and Hamilton.
  • Trailer
  • Booklet/Liner notes: Featuring details on the film restoration as well as an essay by writer and performer A. L. Kennedy.

The Bottom Line

1984 is a remarkable realization of Orwell’s vision, as Michael Radford and Roger Deakins bring the horrors of this dystopia to life with a grim tangibility. It remains as resonant as it ever did, a chilling warning of the dangers of the unchecked power of a government. A gut punch and call to action, driven by a tour de force performance from John Hurt. Criterion delivers a starkly beautiful transfer with some excellent extras to aid appreciation.

1984 is available via Criterion now.

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