‘1984’: Big Brother is Knocking Loud. Are You Listening?

Director Michael Radford’s scorching landmark film resonates now more than ever.
‘1984’: Big Brother is Knocking Loud. Are You Listening?
Winston Smith (John Hurt) exposes Big Brother, in "1984." (Virgin Films)
Michael Clark
R | 1h 50m | Dystopian Drama, Romance, Mystery, Thriller | 1984 

Shot and released in the UK in 1984, “1984” (also stylized as “Nineteen Eighty-Four”) is the finest and most accurate adaptation to date of the landmark 1949 novel of the same name by George Orwell. This is saying quite a bit as it was also made into two other features, three TV shows, 10 radio programs, various stage plays, one opera, six comic books, an album by Van Halen, and a 1974 song by David Bowie.

Frequently and incorrectly labeled as “sci-fi,” “1984” is pure New World Order dystopia, a situation that sadly is finding renewed interest among many of the globe’s current two-legged, all-compliant sheep.

O'Brien (Richard Burton) tortures in the name of Big Brother, in "1984." (Virgin Films)
O'Brien (Richard Burton) tortures in the name of Big Brother, in "1984." (Virgin Films)
Adapted for the screen and directed by Michael Radford, the overall technical triumph of “1984” needs to be shared with his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Roger Deakins. The lighting, framing, camera angles, and bleach bypass color palattes were crucial to the proper and overall fitting sense of resignation.

Big Brother and the Thought Police

John Hurt stars as lead character Winston Smith, an office drone working at the Ministry of Truth, one of the four “Oceania” branches of new government headed by Big Brother (Bob Flag, seen only in still images and fleeting video clips). Under the constant surveillance of the Thought Police, Winston’s sole job is to rewrite history under the scripted directive of his overseers.

In the oddest of possible ways, Winston crosses paths with and romantically falls for fellow Party member and machinist Julia (Suzanna Hamilton). Far more bold, outgoing, and brazen than Winston, Julia coaxes him to a rendezvous in the supposedly remote countryside.

The pair tempts fate once too much by continuing their romance nearer to spying, prying urban eyes. They are soon captured and detained. The Ministry of Love, overseen by barbarous and vile O’Brien (Richard Burton in his final screen performance), subjects the two to separate interrogation, deprogramming, and rehabilitation.

Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) and Winston (John Hurt) meet outside, in "1984." (Virgin Films)
Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) and Winston (John Hurt) meet outside, in "1984." (Virgin Films)

What’s the Score?

The lone controversy surrounding the original release of the movie was an unlikely one: the choice of the soundtrack and score. Exercising its right to make the final cut, the movie’s principal investor (Virgin Films, owned by Richard Branson) chose to partially replace the traditional orchestral score by Dominic Muldowney, with synthesizer-flavored pop songs, written by and performed by the Eurythmics.

I’m a big fan of the Eurythmics and count two of the songs from the movie (“Julia,” “Room 101”) as among my favorites from their discography. However, all of the material included here is thoroughly inappropriate, and ill-fitting for a production of this nature.

So incensed was Radford by Virgin’s decision, he withdrew the film from awards consideration at the 1985 BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) awards. This was eventually followed by separate CD releases of the respective recordings. Both were critically acclaimed and enjoyed brisk sales.

O'Brien (Richard Burton) and Winston Smith (John Hurt), in "1984." (Virgin Films)
O'Brien (Richard Burton) and Winston Smith (John Hurt), in "1984." (Virgin Films)
If you want to hear both versions separately, you have that option with the 2019 Criterion Blu-ray and DVD edition. I highly recommend this release; it also includes a new 4K digital restoration with uncompressed monaural audio, behind-the-scenes footage, and recent interviews with Radford and Deakins.


Throughout the film, explanations of made-up Orwellian phrases such as “Newspeak,” “unperson,” “Ingsoc,” “crimespeak,” “crimestop,” “thoughtcrimes,” “thinkpol,” and “doublethink” are defined, and you can probably surmise that none of them are appealing.

Depending on your own level of optimism and glass-half-full thinking, the final few minutes of the movie offer up some degree of hope. There is the promise for a future free of Big Brother if you question that everything he and his minions spout is the truth.

Winston Smith (John Hurt) does his job, in "1984." (Virgin Films)
Winston Smith (John Hurt) does his job, in "1984." (Virgin Films)

Orwell’s novel and every adaptation following in its wake are not designed to make you feel better about your fellow human. The novel does not provide faux-uplift or put you at ease about inevitable societal totalitarianism. It’s the exact opposite. It is a blinding and aurally shrill warning flare.

Those in power who wish to harm humanity, rarely, if ever, dismantle society in one fell swoop. It’s done one tiny blip at a time, like putting a frog in a pot of water at room temperature, and slowly turning up the heat. You don’t realize what’s being done, until it’s too late.

This story is about control. It’s easier to fool people than it is to convince them that they’ve been fooled.

No one ever wants to be played for a stooge. It’s no problem whatsoever for those who have fallen prey to lies to propagate the ruse. They have zero compunction in relentlessly browbeating and punishing those who dare to flex anything resembling half of a backbone, or present a logical, contradictory morsel of sensible thought.

Remember: Two plus two does not, and never will, equal five.

The movie is available on home video and to stream on MGM+ and Amazon Prime Video.
‘1984’ Director: Michael Radford Starring: John Hurt, Suzanna Hamilton, Richard Burton, Bob Flag MPAA Rating: R Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes Release Date: Dec. 14, 1984 Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5
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Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.