Director: Michael Radford
Writer: Michael Radford (from George Orwell’s novel)
Starring: John Hurt, Suzanna Hamilton, Richard Burton
George Orwell’s 1949 novel about an ultra-fascist society that watches and controls its own population is remembered for several reasons: the very idea of a Big Brother society; Room 101, where your worst fears come true; and Newspeak, a soulless language whose objective is its own ultimate elimination. 1984 is not generally remembered as a work about repressed sexuality. And this is the brilliance of both Orwell’s original novel and of Michael Radford’s superb interpretation, released in the exact year of the film’s title. Sexcatraz has explored numerous films where the destructive effects of our sexual covenants can plainly be seen. 1984 portrays a dystopia where these covenants have been so powerfully impressed into the human psyche—like Marcello in The Conformist—that it is no longer evident they are even at work. Yet at work they are, as is clearly seen when the secretive Inner Party that controls the Big Brother apparatus reveals its ultimate goal.
1984 opens on a brainwashed, boiler suit-clad workforce watching a propaganda film at Victory Square. The gender segregation of the workers provides an early hint that sex is verboten in this totalitarian society. The propaganda film is a clever device for quickly and concisely conveying the exposition necessary to establish the story. Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain) would be a land of peace and plenty if it weren’t for the pesky super-states it constantly wars with. The name Victory Square itself is symptomatic of a society where everything is known by its opposite: the Ministry of Peace maintains constant war through false-flag operations while the Ministry of Truth spews out propaganda and historical revisionism.
It is with this revisionism that Outer Party member Winston Smith (an emaciated John Hurt) is concerned. His job at the Ministry of Truth is to rewrite the past so that it aligns with the current party message. When someone falls foul of the system and is removed—becoming an ‘unperson’—they are excised, not just from the present but from the past. They cease to have existed. Smith dutifully carries out his work, manipulating the historical record to pass off a decrease in chocolate rations as a morale-boosting increase.
But Smith is troubled by ‘thoughtcrimes’—emotion-laden thoughts that contradict party views. He jots these in a notebook stashed behind a broken brick just to the side of the television screen that allows the party to spy on (almost) his every moment. Smith knows full well that there is only one penalty for such a crime: death. Like most of the Outer Party—the minions of the state—Smith lives an austere life in a single-room apartment in a city ruined by perpetual war. All notions of love, of family, of emotional and sexual relationships have been quashed.
It is, of course, towards such notions that the thoughtcrimes of 6079 Smith W. run—towards childhood memories, his mother’s body disfigured by rats, an ageing prostitute he once availed of in the forbidden Proletariat zone. Yes, Smith’s crimes run deeper than just his thoughts; he has on occasion visited the ‘proles’, the animal rung of society, and returned with razor blades for his few friends. Smith has good reason to be nervous when the eyes of an intense young woman, a staunch Outer Party member, repeatedly fall on him. This is Julia (Suzanna Hamilton); a member of the Anti-Sex League, whose views on sex are expounded in another propaganda clip: “a triumph of willpower over the orgasm… 10,000 women took a vow of celibacy and pledged themselves as vessels for the artificial insemination programme…” Here is the ultimate victory of the covenants. Through artificial insemination even the biological imperative of sex for conception has been removed. Sex is not only unnecessary; it is a sign of weakness. Like an unperson, the pleasurable touch of two human beings can be erased from history until it ceases to have ever existed.
The inevitable collision between Smith and Julia occurs in a dismal corridor when Julia somewhat improbably trips over. Smith hesitates. Julia reaches out. He helps Julia to her feet. She strides away, leaving Smith with a tiny note in his hand: “I love you.” The midsection of the film is occupied with Smith and Julia’s necessarily secretive love affair and its inevitable discovery. They use their Ministry passes to escape to the countryside and make love in the woods.
Throughout the film director Michael Redford uses Smith and Julia’s nudity as a metaphor for human feelings; in particular, Hamilton’s pale, unblemished skin jars heavily against the sombre tones and general dereliction of 1984’s dystopian urban landscape.
Smith gets deeper into danger with his next chance encounter in one of those dank tunnels he seems to spend most of his life in, when he is accosted by O’Brien. The final screen appearance by legendary actor Richard Burton, O’Brien is a member of the privileged Inner Party. He has noticed a couple of ‘unwords’—words that have been banned from the constantly contracting Newspeak—in recent articles by Smith, and asks whether he’s interested in an advance copy of the latest dictionary. Smith, already giddy from his affair with Julia, believes that the resistance movement rumoured to be fighting the party has made contact. Smith visits O’Brien and receives the dictionary. Burton, replete in a boiler suit reputedly made in Savile Row, gives a performance of nicely understated gravity. Back in his apartment, ensconced in the tiny corner where the Big Brother TV screen cannot see him, Smith discovers that the dictionary contains hidden pages of a revolutionary tract.
Smith reads the tract to Julia in the bedroom above the razor blade pawnshop in the Proletarian zone. A helicopter suddenly hovers outside. Police smash in the windows. The contrast between the mechanical, black-uniformed, black-helmeted storm troopers and the two naked, shivering, human beings could not be greater. A punch to the solar plexus fells Julia. She is carted away like a sack of potatoes, leaving the bulk of the remaining screen time to Smith’s rehabilitation—or should that be redemption, as in Eyes Wide Shut?—at the hands of O’Brien, who was a party loyalist all along.
This leads inevitably to Room 101, the room of our worst fears. In Smith’s case, it is the rats that maimed his mother’s body. A cage is strapped to his face containing two frenzied rodents. An Image of Julia flashes in his mind. Smith betrays her—just as she, off-screen, betrays him.
The film ends in a café, seemingly a way station for those on the path to unpersonhood. Smith plays chess with himself. Julia enters, all her previous intensity gone, like Malèna on her return to Renato’s town after the war. A listless conversation follows. “I’m only thankful they got to me before it was too late,” Julia intones lifelessly before departing. Smith appears on the café’s giant TV screen and confesses to a raft of crimes he never committed. Many of them are sexual in nature, highlighting the regime’s obsession with sex, every bit as intense and perverse as Albert Spica’s in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Big Brother’s glowering face fills the screen. “I love you” runs through Smith’s mind. Whether that’s a thoughtcrime aimed at Julia or hero worship directed at Big Brother is unclear in the film, unlike Orwell’s original novel, where Smith’s destruction—with all its attendant hope—is complete.
Like The Conformist, 1984 is more overtly political than sexual. Yet the extreme pressure the sexual covenants exert in George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece hangs over the whole film, constricting emotional as well as sexual behaviour along rigidly enforced lines. The relationship between Smith and Julia is the only tenderness evident in the whole film—a violation of social taboos so unacceptable that they must betray each other to survive in this dehumanised world. While 1984 is a fiction, its importance—particularly of the original novel—cannot be underestimated. Frequently ranked among the greatest novels even written, in 2007 the British public voted it the book that most closely defined the 20th Century. With modern technology enabling the monitoring and manipulation of society on a mass scale, fears of a slide into Big Brother totalitarianism remain rife in the early 21st Century. Of all the intelligence that might be gathered by security agencies operating beyond legal oversight, like Smith and Julia in 1984, it is perhaps the collection of sexually related information and images that most frightens the general public.
Of all the intelligence that might be gathered by security agencies operating beyond legal oversight, like Smith and Julia in 1984, it is perhaps the collection of sexually related information and images that most frightens the general public
It is important to note that every fundamentalist society, i.e. every society that rigidly controls the beliefs and behaviours of its populace—be it a fictional one like 1984 or real ones like the Puritans, the Amish, or Wahhabist Saudi Arabia—is doctrinally anti-female and anti-sex. This is not a coincidence. Not only is a violent antipathy to sex inherent in the very structure of such societies, it is their foundation—a foundation that, as 1984 demonstrates, has been buried so deeply as to be virtually invisible. This is the foundation of Sexcatraz. As there are no films that reveal these hidden foundations in sufficient detail, a brief intermission is now necessary to explore the historical origins of shame. What this reveals is that, shorn of its invasive technology, Orwell’s 1984 depicts not so much a future society but many an ancient one.
 In May 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed seven people including himself due to his inability to find sex partners. He left behind a manifesto entitled My Twisted World where he outlined his view of the perfect world. Among his Orwellian beliefs was a complete ban on sex and the use of artificial insemination to perpetuate the human race.