Michael Radford’s ‘NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR’ by Graeme Swanson

To mark the return of Frontlist/Backlists’s Luxury Book Club to Genesis Cinema and Bar Paragon on Tuesday April 12th we invited acclaimed humorist and journalist Graeme Swanson to take a look at the filmed version of Orwell’s dystopian classic – which we will be screening on the night alongside our usual panel discussion.

To film George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare sounds easy enough. What can be so difficult? Simply take North Korea and set it in a gutted post war London? (Airstrip One) No. The horror must be pulled screaming out of the science fiction to get its message across. The easy thing to do would be to emphasise the future, the it-will-never-happen-ness. The secret to this film’s success is in how relatable it is.


Radford’s film is clearly a loving homage to hate. Filmed not only in the year 1984 but also on actual dates specified in Orwell’s novel, the screen looks dull, almost reluctantly in colour, as if even brightness has been repressed by the Thought Police. John Hurt, with his every age face, plays Winston Smith, our hero and our victim. Suzanna Hamilton, with her beautiful normalness, plays his lover Julia. The plot is minimal and not especially important: man keeps diary and falls in love. Is found out. The End. What you’re watching this film for is the rage. Perhaps where this film differs from the book is that the love affair between Winston and Julia and its subsequent suppression is what’s most important.  Here the evil power of the orgasm and the thought crimes that come from relationships are what gets up Big Brother’s nose. In Orwell’s book Big Brother is worried you know far too many words.

Richard Burton 1984.png


Richard Burton stars as O’Brien, a senior member of the Inner Party and essentially the villain. Burton gave better menace than any actor before or since and was perfectly cast as the party’s leading hunter of thought criminals. The casting is one of this film’s strong points. Everyone from the waiter to the face of Big Brother looks tortured, angry and strangely bored, in other words, extremely British. That’s not to say this film is alienating to other countries. Indeed, it has a rare universality but it could only come from Britain. No one does repressed misery better.

For a 32-year-old film set in a 70 year old vision of the future Nineteen Eighty-Four is remarkably timeless. Little dates it, apart from the knowledge that Richard Burton is dead and the frankly bizarre choice of using The Eurythmics in the soundtrack. But with our modern fears such as the popularity of Donald Trump or the needlessly cruel cutting of disability benefits the power and horror of this film still resonates. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a film for now as well as then.

Graeme Swanson

To purchase tickets for the 1984 Luxury Book Club/Screening please visit this link: http://bit.ly/1Qu73c4

Follow Graeme on twitter @swansonian

Follow Luxury Book Club @luxurybookclub


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