Monday 26 April 2021

A new film inspired by George Orwell's 1984 has Mihkel Kerem's powerful new orchestral score at its heart

1984 - New European Ensemble, Mihkel Kerem
1984 - New European Ensemble, Mihkel Kerem

George Orwell, Mihkel Kerem 1984; Edward Snowden, Joseph Thompson, Willem Stam, New European Ensemble, Mihkel Kerem, Gijs Besseling, Emlyn Stam and Sophie Hunter; Greengage, OnJam TV

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 April 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A powerful new film which uses Mihkel Kerem's dramatic orchestral score to explore themse from Orwell's novel

1984 is a new film directed by Gijs Besseling, Emlyn Stam and Sophie Hunter which debuted on OnJam TV on Friday 23 April 2021. The 65 minute film is inspired by George Orwell's novel, but it not so much a dramatisation of the novel as a cross-arts recreation of themes from Orwell's 1984. The film features just two speaking roles, American National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden has a spoken introduction and the actor Joseph Thompson is a George Orwell-like narrator figure. The main emotional impulse comes from a significant new score by Estonian composer Mihkel Kerem who conducts the New European Ensemble. And the score features a significant cello solo played by Willem Stam. The film was produced by the New European Ensemble in collaboration with Greengage which is part of OnJam TV.

The New European Ensemble has popped up a couple of times on this blog as they perform with the Dutch opera company Opera2Day including their productions of Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet in 2018 [see my review] and Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King [see my article], whilst three players from the New European Ensemble (Emlyn Stam, Willem Stam and Rada Ovcharova) performed in Greengage's film The Goldberg Variations: Meditations on Solitude [see my article].

Edward Snowden's spoken introduction at first felt like something of a stunt and I wondered that his role could not have been taken by Joseph Thomspon. But then I came to realise that this introduction is designed to project the world of Orwell's novel 1984 onto contemporary society and show us that the themes are just as relevant today as ever.

The film is based around Kerem's score, which is a substantial and highly dramatic orchestral piece. The orchestra is filmed in a disused industrial space with the players wearing prole uniforms which link to the dramatic images to come.

Whilst actor Joseph Thompson takes a narrator role, introducing and linking the story, a lot of the dramatic impulse comes from scenes from the narrative which are acted out silently over Kerem's score, and linked by the fact that Willem Stam both plays the cello solo and plays the Winston figure in these dramatisations. But another thread is images of modern-day totalitarianism, so that the descriptions from Orwell's novel are paired with images from modern-day society.

All these threads are intercut, significantly, yet thanks to Kerem's score there is a continuous dramatic thread. Kerem is of Estonian descent and is currently joint assistant leader of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The drama of the score is intense, and I would be interested to hear it on its own (Kerem has form when it comes to large-scale orchestral writing, having produced six symphonies) and his new score receives a superbly vigorous performance here with some fine cello playing from Stam. But there is also another intriguing link, one that I did not pick up on until after viewing the film; the face of Big Brother which appears on TV screens everywhere in the film is in fact that of composer Mihkel Kerem!

As the drama of the novel progresses and we reach the torture scenes, the narrative threads in the film change with Joseph Thompson's narrator becoming more engaged with the drama and Thompson turning in the tour-de-force of playing both characters, taking over the Winston role as well as narrator. Yet it is the orchestra which remains our focus, particularly Stam's cello with a powerful solo which brings the film to conclusion.

The result is a powerful evocation of the dystopian themes of Orwell's novel and a film which, rather than using music to underscore pre-existing drama, places the orchestra score at the very heart of the film. A written description of the film might make it difficult to understand how all the threads hang together, and I have to confess that I was somewhat dubious myself before seeing the film. But the result is gripping and compelling, and at barely more than an hour the film manages to pack quite a lot of punch into a relatively short time.


Text: George Orwell
Music and conductor: Mihkel Kerem
Cello solo: Willem Stam
Ensemble: New European Ensemble
Directed by: Gijs Besseling, Emlyn Stam and Sophie Hunter
Executive Producer: Emily Ingram
Producer: Clementine Seely
Actor: Joseph Thompson
Presentation: Edward Snowden
Director of Photography: Paul Evans
1st Camera / Lighting: Jack Finn Taylor
Art Department / Costume: Samuel Wyer
Sound Engineer: Donal Sweeney
Make-up Artist: Chang Kim
Scenic and Lighting Assistant: George Thompson
1984 is available on OnJam TV.


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