Blu-ray Review: 1984 | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, December 8th, 2019  


Studio: The Criterion Collection

Sep 05, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

I was a freshman in high school when I first learned of George Orwell and his biting sociopolitical commentaries, and by the time I was an assistant in my school’s library in my final year, I had read almost his entire catalog of fiction (I still have yet to actually slog through the hundreds of articles he wrote as a journalist). More than any other work that he produced during his two-decade career, his final novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is a tour-de-force of foreboding socially-conscious rhetoric, and one of the definitive stories that have helped shape my understanding of the world and how it functions. Its themes and terminology have influenced similar dystopian authors and stories in the decades since, and has never lost any of its international relevance. While we as a global community have continued to discuss and extrapolate over Orwell’s work, one thing has always remained fascinating: for all of its fame, acclaim, and vibrant fanbase, there only exists two official feature film adaptations.

The first incarnation was released as part of a science-fiction double feature in 1956, “freely adapted” by Nathaniel Rathvon, the former president of RKO, and directed by Michael Anderson, who would be nominated that same year for Best Director at the Oscars for Around the World in 80 Days, and would later go on to direct Logan’s Run (1976). There would not be another theatrical adaptation for nearly three decades (in part due to the Orwell estate), until director Michael Radford sought out the copyright, and producer Simon Perry secured production funding from Richard Branson and Virgin Films. It was written, fully produced, and released within a year, though its release was overshadowed by Radford’s battle with Branson over the film’s final musical score; while Virgin commissioned Eurythmics to produce the music in the final lead-up to Nineteen Eighty-Four’s theatrical run, Radford had already completed a more traditional orchestral score with composer Dominic Muldowney. Subsequently, the film’s numerous home releases would include variations of both scores, either separately or mixed together, and it wouldn’t be until 2003 that each score was fully available on a single copy of the film.

Set in an alternative 1984 England, Winston Smith (John Hurt) is just another government worker living under the totalitarian surveillance of Big Brother and the Thought Police. While working at the Ministry of Truth, rewriting history to align to Party platitudes, Smith is plagued by thoughts and desires that often conflict with laws and mores, officially designated as ‘thoughtcrime.’ However, everything comes to a head when Smith meets the worldly Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), and soon they are comfortably exploring subversive philosophies and having regular illicit sex. After the span of a few months, things escalate, and Smith wants to do something about the oppressive superstate under Big Brother, to change things for the better - which he finds out from his co-worker O’Brien (Richard Burton) is not nearly as clean-cut or as direct as it may appear.

The film released to a mostly positive critical response and decent box office returns, and later received a nomination for Best Production Design/Art Direction at the BAFTA Awards (for production designer Allan Cameron). The film has gone on to be numerously referenced in pop culture, has often been considered one of the most faithful literary adaptations yet put to screen, and remains one of the most visually striking films yet composed by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Now, thirty-five years after its premiere, Criterion has finally brought the movie to Blu-ray with its own special release.

While the considerable hype that has surrounded this film, and its source, will always slant anyone’s first time taking in the material, it is supremely easy to walk away believing that all of these preconceptions have now been confirmed. From the bleach bypass used on the film stock, to the set design, to the incredibly plausible and rich performances, Nineteen Eighty-Four seems to click in all the right ways. Due to the limitations on computer technology at the time, practical sets and effects were employed in every instance, making the scale and ingenuity of the production all the more impressive. There is a realism to each aspect of the film that resonates so strongly, that the movie is still considerably impressive and innovative even today, with its themes and philosophies remaining evergreen debates.

Hurt oozes with a raw vulnerability that perfectly encapsulates his character, while Hamilton channels a subtle intensity that plays artfully through her ever-present gaze. Burton is absolutely terrifying in his final film role (the year of his death), and it remains among his finest performances, quite possibly tied with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Equus as his very best. Radford’s screenplay is lifted with surgical precision from the pages of Orwell’s novel, managing to trim the necessary fat without harming the core of the story in any meaningful way.

Criterion has taken the same kind of care when crafting their home release of this seminal movie. The film’s new 4K digital restoration (directly supervised by Deakins) comes with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, and both the Eurythmics and Muldowney scores as available options. New interviews with Radford and Deakins are buttressed by an interview with David Ryan, author of George Orwell on Screen, and the disc is rounded out by some behind-the-scenes footage and the film’s trailer. The case bears a new aesthetically powerful design by Fred Davis, with a highly interesting and lengthy essay by A. L. Kennedy included in one of the most well-designed inserts that Criterion has produced in quite a while.

While there is little conflict that I can see over the quality and legacy of Nineteen Eighty-Four, there is even less debate over whether or not this release is worth its asking price. Highly immersive, detailed, and passionate, this is a great home release for any collecting cinephile.



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