A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Stanley Kubrick’s must-see cult classic A Clockwork Orange is finally released in the UK.

Future Shock

by Alexa Dalby

A Clockwork Orange

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Stanley Kubrick pulled his notorious 1971 masterpiece A Clockwork Orange from UK cinema screens because of the threats of copycat violence it engendered, so this is its first theatrical release here, thanks to the BFI, though it has been available in the US and on pirate copies. Of course, it’s a must-see cult classic.

Astonishingly, in many ways it seems we are now actually living in the futuristic dystopian drama predicted in Anthony Burgess’s novel as visualised by Kubrick – though it’s not as pop-art stylish as he pictured it. Both eras have casual gang violence, massive economic inequality, run-down housing estates, prisons and the justice system in need of reform, government manipulation of the people with an eye to a future election… with the addition now of a mishandled Brexit referendum that exposed these deep, seemingly intractable splits existing in our society.

So… A Clockwork Orange is of its time yet also timely in so many ways. And, though the film is nearly 50 years old now, it’s still a superb piece of filmmaking even if now some cracks in its glossy, hard-edged veneer can be discerned.

Malcolm McDowell perfectly – chillingly – inhabits the central character of Alex, a vicious, amoral thug, who’s still at (reform) school, living with his parents. He has a knowing, cynical way with a voiceover, using strange words from Burgess’s disconcerting invented language, as he recounts his tale to us – ‘O my brothers’. His gang, the Droogs, dress in iconic white shirts and trousers, jock straps worn threateningly outside, and black bowler hats – it’s thought-provoking that clothes that are so harmless when worn normally could convey such menace put together like this.

The first half of the film still shocks viscerally, first with Kubrick’s spare view of a harshly lit, clinical white and garishly coloured future and the horror of the sexist decor of the Korova Milkbar, then with an escalating series of brutal, motiveless, random attacks by bored Droogs: car theft, gang fights, assault, home invasion, burglary, GBH, rape and murder.

These are the scenes that everyone knows, and Kubrick feared, featuring the tramp (Paul Farrell), the writer (Patrick Magee) and his wife (Adrienne Corri) and the Cat Lady (Miriam Karlin).They’re beautifully shot and edited in time to inappropriately florid classical music, bloody red violence highlighted against dazzling white backgrounds, the skewed perspective of each frame carefully shaped to disorientate – and they’re really, really uncomfortable to watch. It’s extreme, precision filmmaking: sometimes speeded up, sometimes softening violence with slow-mo, sometimes over-heightened into caricature, sometimes carefully tightrope-walking the boundaries of acceptability.

The second half takes Alex into his apparent rehabilitation as a medical guinea pig in a government-sponsored experiment led by the sinister Dr Brodsky (Carl Duering). You’ll have seen the poster images of his eyes painfully clamped open as he’s forced to watch the sort of scenes that formerly would have excited him as conversion therapy to tame his anti-social urges. From there, the film widens out from the gruesome activity we’ve seen into discussions of choice and free will, punishment, reform, and into revealing the underlying corruption of the collusion between police, government, perpetrators and victims.

And there’s a final irony that links A Clockwork Orange with our own times. Although he’s a sociopath, Alex had one redeeming feature – his love of Beethoven, particularly the 9th symphony, though the images it conjures up for him are the opposite of the brotherly love its composer intended. For Alex at the start of the film, someone singing the Ode to Joy is like hearing a great bird and the symphony itself prompts him to poetry, describing it as ‘white luminosity’. in the light of recent events, with the Ode to Joy being the European Union anthem and current pro-EU protests putting their own life-affirming spin on it so that it’s widely heard, A Clockwork Orange is even more prescient and unsettling.

A Clockwork Orange is released on 5 April 2019 in the UK.

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