Aficionados of the Noble Failure will love "1984," Michael Radford's tasteful but trivial adaptation of George Orwell's gloomy prediction of Western culture's doom. Radford sees Orwell's book as a deeply personal fantasy, rooted in a pessimism that verged on the pathological and the extreme situation of the Blitz; he's so faithful to this reading that he never goes beyond the four corners of Orwell's mind at a specific historical moment. Why bother?
Radford has come up with an ingenious look for his movie. The production design isn't high-tech but medieval, all blackened brick and clanking iron -- society the way it would look when, after a war, it must be rebuilt from the bottom up. The omnipresent two-way television screens, alternately spying and spewing propaganda, are cast in sepia. And Radford has washed all of the color out of the frame -- "1984" looks like a tinted black-and-white movie from the silent era, with the primary tint a chilling blue.
But the atmosphere is so unfailingly oppressive that the characters' resistance to it never shows through -- they're defeated from the beginning. Winston (John Hurt) sneaks away with Julia (a lovely but blank Suzanna Hamilton), but their scenes together have the same dour, washed-out quality of the scenes that came before. Even if no one, realistically, can transcend totalitarianism, people think they can; they create private, case-hardened regimes of joy. But this Winston and Julia make love with the same grim resolve with which, in their jobs, they create "nonpersons" and edit history. When they're finally discovered, it's almost a relief.
More importantly, the movie's look is so foreign, and so dogmatic, that "1984" gets insulated from contemporary life. What's interesting about "1984," and what has made it fodder for two generations of pundits, is whether Orwell's prophecy is accurate, a question the movie doesn't address. Instead, the movie stands simply as an artful adaptation, and not an altogether engaging one. The repeated scenes of the rallying mob, chanting and howling at Big Brother on the screen, soon grow tiresome; like everything about "1984," they seem redundant.
Hurt is an extraordinary actor, particularly in thrillers, where his refinement and exotic, Mr. Spock features add a nice piquancy. But here, his delicate, perpetually pained expression becomes the mask of The Human Condition -- he's always hurt. And the movie takes a decided turn for the worse once the late Richard Burton appears. Nodding to the movie's bleak mood, Burton bleakens himself; robbed of the pleasures of the grand, show-offy way he could use his voice, the mischievous twinkle of his eye, you feel cheated.
"1984," of course, is no fantasy today -- Big Brother is alive and well and living in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and most of the Third World. That only makes the movie seem more pointless; why not make a movie, for example, of Milan Kundera's "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting"? The message would have more impact, and would be somewhat different -- for in Kundera's book, as in real life, the human spirit, through love and humor, always survives.
1984, opening today at the K-B Cinema, is rated R, and contains nudity and violence.