Despite bearing the ominous credit `Freely adapted from George Orwell's novel,' the much-reviled 1956 version of 1984 actually turns out to be rather good. True it doesn't have the power or impact of the BBC's superb live adaptation with Peter Cushing two years earlier while the horror of Room 101 is definitely something of a damp squib, but it's still a for the most part very effective transposition of a Stalinist police state to a still visibly post-war Britain scarred by bomb damage. It's also still alarmingly very pertinent, with distant leaders using possibly imaginary wars to justify increasing oppression while revising history - sorry, correcting misreported speech and events - while the approved new dictionary of New Speak puts a spin on the worst outrages in the name of clarification and avoiding misunderstandings. Many of the finer points of the novel are inevitably lost in the hour-and-a-half running time, particularly the means of subjugating the proles outside the party through pornography and sentimental fiction, while 50s cinemas aversion to showing TVs in ordinary people's houses reduces the televiewers to electronically blinking eyes, losing the beautiful irony of televisions that watch their viewers. The design of the party buildings is a bit too 50s scifi rather than Orwell's crumbling 1948, but for the most part it keeps enough and gets enough right, from the daily two-minute hate to the role of David Kossof's antique shop owner offering distant memories of the bad old days before the revolution, while the "You are the dead" moment is suitably chilling in its theatricality. Edmond O'Brien may be a bit too well-fed as Winston Smith but he more than holds his own in an interesting cast. Jan Sterling is adequate as Julia, Donald Pleasance effectively more or less reprises his role from the TV adaptation while Michael Redgrave's interrogator is the standout performance even if at times the effective interrogation scenes threaten to lean more to the black-and-white anti-communist propaganda of the day than the gradual destruction of self and reality before rebuilding them in the party's preferred image of the novel.
The UK DVD from public domain specialists Orbit Media is, typically, not a good one, but considering the Orwell Estate's deep hatred of the film has kept the film out of circulation for so long it's probably the best we can expect in the foreseeable future. The UK version apparently had a `happy' ending, with Winston and Julia unbroken and dying defiant, but the DVD has the US ending that at least follows Orwell's vision to its logical conclusion even if it does end with a voice over spelling out the message for the sake of future generations.