The year is 1984 and in the state of Oceania the public are rallied with the news that the war with Eurasia is going very well. At these rallies, huge groups of people are gathered before an enormous screen which broadcasts propaganda, although many of them regard it as the truth and forcefully make their opinions heard at the top of their voices. For Winston Smith (John Hurt), who works editing news stories on the instruction of those in power as the language is pared down to prevent thought crime, he wonders if this life is quite the blessing the ruling Big Brother tells them it is...
In fact, what Winston could do with is a good shag, or it was according to this adaptation of George Orwell's classic novel which had the forced novelty value of being made and released in the actual year 1984, all part of a masterful marketing campaign which struck many as being opportunism and cyncism if this was a comment on the way the United Kingdom was heading under the government of Margaret Thatcher. Only the most reactionary viewer could see the strictness of that party as tantamount to a totalitarian state Orwell was warning against, even if there were some astute parallels to be made in their controlling ways.
Director and adapter Michael Radford claimed to be making this more as if it had been created in the year Orwell wrote it, so the special effects were minimal and the urban decay was emphasised to render these politics which brought about Winston's surroundings as corrupting as it was possible to get, and there was a valid style of depression to the visuals which lent the production a power all its own. Although there were naysayers, most who accused Radford of downplaying the messages of the novel in favour of melodramatics over substance, there was a significant number who appreciated what he had in mind, making this one of the better of the dystopian futures that proliferated on screens big and small in the eighties.
Not that Radford was entirely happy with the results himself, as he famously complained publically about the production company Virgin taking off much of Dominic Muldowney's musical score and replacing it with the Eurythmics' idea of what the film should sound like. Although these days the biggest distraction would appear to be the pubic hair of Hurt's co-star Suzanna Hamilton, who played Julia, the woman he falls in love with and ends up setting up illicit meetings with for forbidden foods, coffee and sex. They pretty much know this cannot last themselves, but grab onto this expression of freedom as far as they can take it, not realising that Big Brother is a jealous tyrant and will not tolerate any citizen loving anyone except him.
That's if he even exists, as he could be a construct of the Party designed as figurehead for the population to worship. Questions of whether this is a fascist or Communist state seem irrelevant when the borders between such distinctions are so blurred by the compulsion to control the citizenry, either by keeping the lower classes - the Proles - in obedient ignorance or the middle classes which Winston and Julia belong to so scared and guilt-ridden that they cannot imagine stepping out of line. Too late for both of them, they are discovered, and the bleakness of Orwell's vision was well served by humanising it thanks to Hurt's wounded, cowed, pitiful hero and Hamilton's hopeless optimistic partner. In his final film role, Richard Burton was in very ill health - Radford had to support his weakened arms when he held up his fingers for Winston to count - but conveyed a quiet authority as O'Brien the torturer which suggests the character was once in Winston's place many years before. Not exactly a laugh a minute, but by divining the essential sadness and waste of the themes this was surprisingly affecting if you were in the mood for it.