*Potential spoilers lurking*
Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian masterpiece A Clockwork Orange has always been one of my favourite films. Along with other Kubrick works such as The Shining, it was a big part of my cinematic education as a teenager, when I started to appreciate films outside of the standard multiplex blockbusters and noughties Apatow comedies that had always been my bread and butter. I was mystified and fascinated by Kubrick’s brutal, grim universe and its absurdly dark characters.
My obsession only continued when I read Anthony Burgess’s novel and one of the first pieces of film writing I ever published online was a review of the movie written entirely in the hybrid slang dialect of ‘Nadsat’ that appears in the story. So it was with some excitement that I attended a screening of the movie ahead of its first wide cinema release in the UK since 2000, when it arrived after Kubrick’s death.
For those not familiar with the storyline, the film follows Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of droogs as they cut a violent swathe through their grotesque, sparse, poverty-stricken society. He is ultimately caught by police and imprisoned, before volunteering himself as a test subject for a controversial new form of behavioural therapy. The narrative doesn’t take much time to describe, but the languorous, unconventional pace is spellbinding and there’s something poetic about the way the language welcomes the viewer under its unusual spell.
There’s a distancing effect created by the language and the unusual setting, which is recognisable but also absurd. This is a hellscape in which the gap between the old and the young could not be wider, with hopeless youth driven to lawlessness and violence. The old absolutely do not get away scot-free, though, with the film designed to raise major questions about the way that such criminality is dealt with. The Ludovico technique is a truly horrifying condemnation of the dehumanising effect of control – something that consistently arises again as a theme, most recently in Jordan Peele’s Us.
McDowell’s performance is one of the greatest ever committed to celluloid. As the morally bankrupt figure he portrays at the start, his defiant stance and economy of movement communicates a dangerous excess of self-confidence, while he’s every bit as convincing as the snivelling, broken man he is transformed into by his therapy. Patrick Magee makes a big impression as the writer whom Alex menaces, while Michael Bates is unforgettable as the over-cranked prison guard who provides a great deal of the movie’s frequent comedic beats.
Everything that takes place in A Clockwork Orange is stylised to within an inch of its life, from the delightfully surreal scene of Alex and his droogs barrelling down country lanes in his car to the moment when a killer blow is concealed by a cut to some grotesque modern art. Kubrick’s violent odyssey takes place in a world that’s a long way from the real one and timeless in its portrayal of skewed dystopia, but close enough to our own that it still resonates almost 50 years on.
The haunting ending of the film – one of the biggest diversions from Burgess’s source novel – adds another layer of darkness to its allegory. In an attempt to fix a PR nightmare, the forces of government control are willing to twist the knife yet again in order to save their own skin. Alex doesn’t mind, though, as his chilling final line of dialogue reveals. It’s a bleak and potent send-off for a film that is more than willing to show the audience its rather bolshy yarbles.
So, my brothers, round up your droogs and viddy this malenky film down at the old cine, with its lashings of ultraviolence and the old in-out, in-out. It’s a hard thing to put before your glazzies, but trust me, it’s real horrorshow.
Dir: Stanley Kubrick
Scr: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Warren Clarke, James Marcus, Michael Tarn, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates, Carl Duering
Prd: Stanley Kubrick
DOP: John Alcott
Music: Wendy Carlos
Run time: 136 mins
A Clockwork Orange will open at BFI Southbank and other cinemas from April 5.