January 14, 1985 12:00 PM

The best and perhaps only reason for cheering this film version of George Orwell’s classic novel is Richard Burton. In this, his last screen performance, Burton acts with stunning resourcefulness. Despite his health problems, the Welsh actor’s resonant voice never lost its power to stir. A posthumous Oscar seems deserved. After more than 40 pictures and seven nominations, he has never won the award. If nothing else, 1984 should remind the Academy it is behind on its payment. The rest of the film rarely rises to Burton’s sterling standard. Writer-director Michael Radford eschews dealing with the ways time has or has not fulfilled the events Orwell prophesied 35 years ago. Totalitarianism in the form of Big Brother hasn’t blanketed the world, but the age of computers, television monitoring, surveillance and the nonlanguage of Newspeak is here. Radford makes no use of existent technology, one of the few feasible reasons to remake the original 1956 film. 1984’s bleak landscapes and overall malaise destroy our interest in hero John Hurt’s fight to insist that two plus two equals four. Hurt, so fine in The Elephant Man, plays this beleaguered employee of the Ministry of Truth as a walking cadaver whose battle is lost before the film begins. His love scenes with a surviving sensualist (Suzanna Hamilton)—tremendously moving in the book—fail to provide even a spark, and the incessant caterwauling of a Eurythmics song called Sexcrime (nineteen eighty-four) doesn’t help. Only Burton, as an Inner Party member who befriends and then betrays Hurt, comes through with real dramatic intensity. But Radford sacrifices even this marvelous actor to an obsession with graphic violence (rats chewing on a human face) that renders the last third of the film virtually unwatchable. Endless scenes of Hurt being stretched on a rack offer little beside an apt metaphor for the film: George Orwell’s novel of ideas has been tortured in a numbing chamber of horrors. (R)

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