My favourite John Hurt film has to be Michael Radford’s 1984, released in the same year, with Hurt as Winston Smith, Richard Burton as O’Brien and Suzanna Hamilton as Julia. Finally reaching the year inevitably prompted endless discussions about whether reality matched Orwell’s original vision. Not surprisingly the Labour party pointed out how Thatcher’s Britain was a fair approximation of the poverty-ridden dystopia of the book, while the Tories triumphantly proclaimed that by voting them in the country had narrowly avoided a 1984 communist hell which the deranged left would have imposed on us all.
Having said that, all of the movie’s exteriors shots were filmed in real, contemporary British locations. The UK, severely split under Thatcher’s Tories and not yet emerging from the decline of the 70s and early 80s was, for many people, a world of unemployment, seedy decay and empty industrial landscapes, used to stunning effect by Radford. The movie was also perhaps the first to create a retro vision of the future. Not only did it embrace the industrial grunge look pioneered by Ridley Scott in Alien, but the whole premise was that time had stopped in 1948, when the book was written. There’s no hi-tech, no gleaming chrome or sophisticated computerised surveillance. It’s a world of filthy tenements, steaming workers’ kitchens and black and white TV. Computers are operated by Bakelite telephone diallers, police surveillance consists of little more than a helicopter hovering outside your bedroom window, and Winston Smith is tortured on an old fashioned rack.
Set in this wonderfully realised post-war desolation, John Hurt, Richard Burton and Suzanna Hamilton turned in stunning performances. My first encounter with Hurt was through The Naked Civil Servant, and I, Claudius, in which he played the demented Emperor Caligula. Both roles were delivered with an over-arching fey theatricality which marked him out initially as talented, mercurial and flamboyant performer. And yet at his best he was wonderfully understated, the first glimpse of his ability to communicate volumes with very little being his appearance as Raskolnikov in the 1979 BBC adaptation of Crime and Punishment.
In 1984, his haggard, pale face, devoid of any makeup, perfectly captures the odd mix of passivity and petty rebellion that makes up Winston Smith. In all of Orwell’s writing there was always an undercurrent of self-regard, and Hurt managed to channel this into an incredibly understated, yet powerful performance that avoided the pitfalls the writer himself occasionally tumbled into, when it became less about politics and more about George Orwell.
Of course Hurt spent most of the time bouncing off Richard Burton’s O’Brien. The Welsh actor, visibly unwell for most of the film (it was to be his last and he died in June, 1984), also dampened down his characteristic fiery stage manner to deliver one of the creepiest and horribly seductive arguments for absolute power ever seen on the screen. In the book the torture scene sometimes lapses into nothing more than a lecture, but in Radford’s movie Burton’s explanation of the state’s raison d’être to a brutalised and tortured Winston is delivered with all the kindly and indulgent persuasiveness of a favourite uncle. Even the moment when he pulls out Hurt’s tooth gives the impression he’s only doing it because he really cares about his victim.
Yet despite the grime, the naturalistic and understated performances, and the unrelenting pessimism, 1984 is still a brilliantly fascinating watch. It even has the occasional flash of grim humour. Gregor Fisher plays the pathetic Parsons, Smith’s neighbour who, despite being gormlessly committed to Big Brother, ends up being dobbed in to the authorities for Thought Crime by his repulsive kids. In another scene Smith takes part in a morning TV exercise show in which he’s told off by the grim PE teacher complete with 1940s school gym kit for not touching his toes properly.
The movie 1984 didn’t escape controversy. In fact Michael Radford publicly disowned it after falling out with Virgin Films, partly because of the latter’s insistence on using the Eurythmics for some of the soundtrack (hence the toe-curlingly off-register disco single 1984 – Sex Crime with its ‘oop boop boopy-doop’ chorus set to a video of jackbooted oppression). The ending was also left ambiguous, partly as a sop to the US market who, apparently, would have struggled with Winston Smith’s ultimate surrender to Big Brother. All of this begs the question as to what the movie would have been like if Richard Branson hadn’t stuck his fingers in, because despite the arguments and accusations surrounding its release, it really is a superb film – both as an adaptation of George Orwell’s novel, and for including one of John Hurt’s finest performances.