(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)
(Note: parts of this write-up come from an earlier review, which is no longer available.)
I was going to run with another movie in this slot and save 1984 for a later date. But considering how fast the hammer has fallen with our new regime; considering that sales of George Orwell’s more-indispensible-than-even novel have skyrocketed; and considering that star John Hurt passed away just this Friday, it seems more appropriate to go with this one. Multiple versions of 1984 have been filmed, but this – the version from the titular year itself – feels the most indispensible, not only because of the circumstances under which it was filmed, but because of Hurt’s powerful central performance as an anonymous man utterly destroyed by tyranny.
The filming circumstances were unique and unrepeatable. Director Michael Radford shot on location in England during the spring of 1984, the very months the book was supposed to have taken place. He found the grimiest corners of the country to portray a Britain in the grip of absolute totalitarianism: a government that exists solely to control every moment of its citizens’ lives. Radford didn’t want jackbooted stromtroopers in gleaming uniforms or towering architectural edifices dominating the skyline. His world is so… mundane. Sad. Covered in dirt and falling apart. Nothing works except the surveillance apparatus of the state. Humanity’s strength has been harnessed in the service of its own misery.
Orwell knew what that state looked like, but he also knew that such oppression didn’t constitute its greatest horror. That distinction falls to humanity’s own indifference to it all: the way everyone onscreen just accepts it as business as usual. The strength of Orwell’s scenario lay in its finality, where only the feeblest sparks of the human spirit survive and then only for brief periods before being snuffed out. In Radford’s hands, it feels more plausible than ever: steeped in despair and processed through bloodless bureaucracy rather than showy flashes or gestures.
Richard Burton proves a godsend in that regard (his turn as Winston Smith’s nemesis O’Brien proved to be his last onscreen performance). But it’s Hurt who contributes the perfect piece to that puzzle. His eyes hold the sadness of the world in them, the ruined gentleness of a soul trampled into utter obedience. He’s not a soldier or a fighter, just a hapless cog glumly continuing the perversion of the human spirit. In exchange, he gains only the vain, desperate hope that his blood won’t oil the gears of this monstrous machine. When they bark orders at him, he squeaks and falls into line. When they shame him for his thoughts, he feels it burn into his soul. This is no defiant rebel. This is a man who just wants to be left alone in his misery and who will diligently contribute to the state’s subjugation to do it.
His “crime” is solely a personal one: he falls in love, putting personal ambitions above Big Brother’s purpose for him. For that, he earns something far worse than a death sentence: an execution of the soul. For as O’Brien reminds him, the state wants more than his obedience. It wants him to accept the reality it presents to him. Only then will its control be complete. Only then will he become the “human tractor” (to quote another dystopian story) it wants him to be. And it ultimately succeeds: snuffing out even the smallest act of defiance as efficiently as it might assemble a rifle.
No one but Hurt could portray such shattering devastation so completely. No one could show us, with a single look, how heavy the toll for living in fear can be.
Radford’s movie adopts a respectful tone towards Orwell’s work, finding the despair at the expense of the rage. You could sense the author’s anger dripping beneath the surface of the book: the feeling that this has happened more than once, and the stain on our collective humanity for allowing it. The movie loses that spark a bit, which makes it a profoundly sobering experience. It does its job too well in many ways, and I actually hesitated to discuss it in part because of that. We need hope and strength right now, not nihilism.
But like the book, 1984 understands that forgetting these lessons puts us a step closer to the unthinkable. We’re too close to that now as it stands. Again we hear those echoes. Again that insistent voice rises with terrible purpose. “You didn’t see what you just saw.” “Human beings aren’t really human beings.” “Why can’t you just accept the way things are?” If you need an answer to that question, look for it in Hurt’s haunted face staring back from the screen. This is where it ends, it tells us. This is the only logical conclusion to the madness we have embarked upon. Orwell intended it as a cautionary example: a way of rallying us against the horrific abuses that could engulf us at the drop of a hat. The movie’s greatest strength is preserving that instinct in no uncertain terms… so that it would always be there when we needed it.
RIP John Hurt. 1940-2017.