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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

This week I bring you another "book into movie" review. Orwell's 1949 novel of the same title has had no less than four film adaptions over the years but this is the only one that really manages to get things right. It's not an easy story to handle and nobody expects much of a return on making one of the bleakest novels possible into a film that will actually make any money. This film is a brave and very artful endeavour and often gets a rather bad rap for its soundtrack (which I will discuss later) which is not totally fair. This is by far one of the most faithful book to film adaptations I have ever seen and it doesn't quite get the reputation it deserves with members of my generation.


While this is a bit off topic, it is interesting to note that the trailer above and the one for Giorgio Moroder's 1984 restoration of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (released several months before this film) share striking similarities in narration and music. Considering their quite fascist interpretations of the future it seems quite fitting.

I have included the trailer below for the sake of comparison:

I think this is the one time I will be able to dispense with a plot synopsis simply because this story is so broadly read and well known. Besides, I would basically have to type out the entire screenplay for anyone who managed to NOT know what this even is. Many plot elements are so universal that words and phrases from it have entered everyday language and thought (ex: Big Brother, Thought Police, etc.). Even mentioning the year 1984 can conjure images like the ones in this film. I think that fact alone proves what a benchmark it really is. With today's technology, it really does seem like Big Brother is watching us. Doubleplusungood indeed...

Casting John Hurt as Winston Smith is maybe one of the best casting choices I have ever seen in a motion picture, the range and depth he exhibits is astounding and as an audience we feel our souls crushed flat along with his every second he is on screen. Suzanna Hamilton appears as Winston's lover Julia. This film is her best known performance and the levels of strength and fragility she exudes goes well beyond measure. Richard Burton appears as the chilling and omnipotently threatening O'Brien. Nineteen Eighty-Four was unfortunately his last film, as he died two months before the premiere, but it stands as perhaps his absolute finest work in a career filled with memorable performances. And I nearly forgot the smallish part of Cyril Cusack as Charrington the shop owner. He appeared in so many films it's hard to pick one out for you to recognize him in but he presents the sudden menace of a member of the Thought Police with precise calculation.

Like I said in my introduction, this film has had four adaptations including this one. The first version was made in 1953 by CBS and reportedly has a length of only 50 minutes (it remains the only version I have not seen). The second version to be produced came along in 1954 via the BBC and stars Peter Cushing in one of his first major roles and also features a young (though still bald!) Donald Pleasance and proved quite controversial upon release. This version ran for roughly an hour and forty five minutes, but still didn't quite capture everything and featured quite a few changes. In 1956 came a feature film version which was one and a half hours which also features rather dubious and extensive rewrites (as well as Mr. Pleasance appearing once again). Like I said earlier, nobody quite managed to get it right.

The version filmed in 1984 has many things that previous versions lack. The chief thing in particular being a thin layer of filth everywhere. There's rubble in the streets and clothes are disheveled. The Director, Michael Radford, wanted the film shot in black and white but Virgin Films (the company in charge of production) said no, which wound up being a fateful decision. What really helps add to the filthy and dystopian look of this film was the use of a technique known as bleach bypass. During the processing of the film, the bleaching is partially (or even entirely) skipped over. This in essence leaves a black and white image over the top of a color one leaving things looking gritty and washed out. More recent DVD releases (like the European Region 2 release from 2004) have full color saturation and lack the benefit of this simple optical effect. Go on youtube and you can find clips which will show you a world of difference between how either print appears.

This version is also notable for its ready use of the Newspeak language. Older versions did feature the language yes, but only here does it get proper justice. No dialogue in this version feels forced or half hearted, many pieces are pretty much verbatim from the novel in fact. It seems little was missed by the team behind this picture, even down to such things as the bottles of Victory Gin that appear in much of the film. The atmosphere of gloom and dread that Orwell so deftly put into words was something I never thought could be put on film when I first read the novel as a youth. One day in the video store I was of course pleasantly surprised, and may I say after watching it in more ways than one.

Some scenes (one cannot be sure how many) were actually shot on the days that they occur in Winston's diary. This must have leant a rather eerie tone to filming which I will definitely make a point of asking John Hurt about should I ever be so lucky as to meet him. Atmosphere is important for films just as much as a strong cast, and thankfully this film got it right. One thing it manages to divide the audience on however is the musical score. Most editions of this (up until the North American Region 1 release which is now sadly OOP and rather expensive) feature a score written primarily by then top Virgin Records (this was released by Virgin Films, remember?) pop group Eurythmics. This led to a bit of controversy on the film's part that continues to be a hot topic among fans to the present day.

Michael Radford had originally commissioned an orchestral score by a composer named Dominic Muldowney. Muldowney was involved with the film from early on in production to provide source music for many of the Telescreen sequences and the anthem "Oceania, Tis For Thee" etcetera. Virgin seems to have felt the need to put a pop group on the soundtrack to make it a little more marketable. Putting pop or rock groups in charge of scores was rather hip in '84 it seems, and had had mixed success with such gems as the band Toto doing the score for David Lynch's film version of Dune and the rather mixed bag attempt by Giorgio Moroder on his restoration of Metropolis already mentioned earlier in this review. I (like many) feel the score is clunky and very dated. I have also heard rather mixed reviews of Muldowney's score- but to be fair those were of the CD release of it (it's first and only release besides on the US DVD's) as a stand alone item. I would like to see a review of the film with this score in place to see how it holds up. Not all scores can stand separate from their films, but that doesn't mean it's a bad one.

Have a listen to the Aria (heard during the opening Telescreen broadcast) below:

Back to the subject at hand- Radford was sufficiently furious about the Eurythmics score being placed upon his film by Virgin that he made a public statement about it at the Evening Standard British Film Awards and withdrew the film from BAFTA consideration in protest. According to a public statement issued shortly thereafter by Eurythmics, they had no knowledge of there being a score before theirs and had accepted Virgin's request on good faith. I don't find their statement hard to believe, considering the long history of missteps production companies have taken when they exercise their right of final cut over a director's wishes before and since. It's things like that that are the reason we have Director's Cuts.

Controversy about the score aside, I just choose to ignore the bits of the score I don't like and enjoy the film as best I can. With vhs you really don't have any other choice! I've pretty much said everything I can about the movie, so let me take the opportunity to talk about the wonderful early "big box" rental packaging of my copy. Most copies you see of this are in a standard (though heavily built, as was the standard of the time) slip case. Both the slip cases and this edition feature something I have not otherwise seen on vhs packaging: a debossed movie logo (which appears on every side of the box!). It's a rather trivial and probably expensive thing to do on a movie box but adding some tactile sense to the package is interesting. Something I cannot make head or tails of is the fact that any copy of this particular edition I have seen features a decal on front proclaiming that the cassette is made with TDK brand tape. TDK must have had a deal with USA Home Video as I don't really see the point of that announcement, as it's not going to influence whether I would rent the movie in the end. The back side of the box is pure rental copy too- there is only a cursory plot explanation and much of  the panel is taken up by editorial quotes proclaiming the brilliance of the film in question.

Have a look:

A lost art indeed, as there is no such thing as a rental copy of a DVD. This box harkens back to a day when the local Mum & Pop video store was alive and well, a time which I miss greatly. So it goes. As you can tell the front of my copy is also tremendously sun faded, meaning this one spent some time on the front lines of the video rental war. This rather amusingly reflects the bleach bypass used in the movie as mentioned earlier.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is in my opinion a tremendous film effort. It is not to be missed, dismissed, or taken lightly. 

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