‘A Clockwork Orange’ revisited

❉ Back in cinemas UK-wide and part of BFI’s Kubrick season, how does the cult classic viddy 48 years on?

“Kubrick’s cinematography remains hugely impressive, with the director wielding absolute command of his frame and everything within it, and McDowell is a compelling presence throughout, right from his audacious stare down the lens in Kubrick’s elaborate opening shot.”

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is set to be re-released in selected cinemas nationwide this April and is also being shown as part of a comprehensive BFI Southbank season of Kubrick’s work running from 1 April – 31 May. Dogged by controversy, and famously pulled from distribution by Kubrick himself following allegations of copycat assaults, how does the 1971 film look some 48 years later?

In case you don’t know the plot, in a quasi-dystopian world, young Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is a well-spoken thug whose ultra-violence lands him in an aversion therapy scheme that renders him no longer capable of acting on his base instincts. Free will is the theme – is morality dependent on choice?

McDowell is a compelling presence throughout, right from his audacious stare down the lens in Kubrick’s elaborate opening shot. Alex’s actions and attitude are terrifying, but there’s no denying the magnetism of his charisma, and there’s something about his costume of fake eyelashes, makeup and bowler hat – surely the politest of headgears – that almost distracts from the sickening violence with which he and his friends attempt to alleviate their disaffection with society.

Warren Clarke in A Clockwork Orange (1971)

The choreographed violence of gang warfare and unprovoked attacks on the innocent are a similarly disturbing blend of viciousness and elegance. This is most striking in the notorious Singin’ in the Rain scene in which Alex turns his latest bout of thuggery into a song and dance routine.

Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Alongside the music choices – buckets of Rossini and Beethoven, most notably of course Ludwig Van’s “glorious ninth” symphony – the script serves up a healthy portion of Nadsat, the slang that Alex and his peers use, and which we hear in “humble narrator” Alex’s voiceover. Fantastically distinctive and strangely easy to understand, Nadsat is almost as crucial to the film (and Anthony Burgess’ novel) as its plot and visual finesse. Kubrick always chose his source material wisely, and the language of Burgess’ 1962 book creates an appropriately jarring sense of something very wrong with the world.

Malcolm McDowell, Gillian Hills, and Barbara Scott in A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Kubrick’s cinematography remains hugely impressive, with the director wielding absolute command of his frame and everything within it. It’s only in the film’s final act that it begins to feel dated, which is entirely down to the OTT performances. What started as a canny satire ends almost as farce – it’s beyond surreal, and not an approach that modern filmmakers would take. But then Kubrick was a maverick artist, and the gurning of these final scenes is perhaps no more distancing than Peter Sellers ranting on top of his atom bomb at the end of Dr Strangelove.

In terms of explicitness, the rapes and assaults of the film pale in comparison to what we’re used to seeing in the average Tarantino film nowadays. It’s the arthouse sensibility of their presentation which renders them so uniquely disturbing.

Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (1971)

On the question of whether evil is innate, A Clockwork Orange hedges its bets a little – or maybe deliberately resists posing a pat answer. A prison chaplain passionately opposes the aversion therapy practiced on Alex, on the grounds that it deprives him of the active choice to turn away from evil, but we never see any of the characters actually exercising such a choice.

Whether exploring the nature of morality or offering a chilling and bold portrait of a rotten society, Kubrick’s film remains a work of high artistry and imaginative flare, and is well worth revisiting, or sampling for the first time.


❉ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is back in cinemas on 5 April 2019. It coincides with Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition at the Design Museum (opens 26 April) and, in partnership, a retrospective Stanley Kubrick season at BFI Southbank running from 1 April – 31 May. 

❉ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (UK/USA 1971) Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 136 mins, Cert 18. With Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates, Warren Clarke. Image credits: Warner Archive.

❉  Nick Myles is a London-based writer and director. His stage plays have been produced at numerous London theatres, and at both the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festivals. He has also contributed to Big Finish’s range of Dark Shadows audio plays. Twitter: Nick Myles

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