To ever criticise Stanley Kubrick is to earn the anger and disbelief of perhaps most of the critical world. Thankfully, for my sake, I am not one of those people. I am very much a fan of Kubrick’s work, even if he never made any effort to stop his films from looking exactly like the time period they were made in, rather than the era they are supposed to be set. A Clockwork Orange does look incredibly dated now, despite its near future setting. The decor is garish 70s, as are the clothes worn by all of the characters present.
Ignoring its blatant 70s styling, A Clockwork Orange is a frankly excellent film, containing an engaging story, deliciously offbeat characters and a darkly satirical edge. Britain has gone to the dogs and the streets are awash with gangs that dress in a rather amusing, if somewhat threatening manner.
It’s a film filled with iconic imagery and scenes, from a group of droogs, led by Malcolm McDowell’s Alex, breaking into a couple’s home and partaking in a bit of ultra-violence and a bit of the old “in and out” as they call it, all the way up to Alex’s eyes being prised open And forced to watch a never ending stream of horrific things as part of his penal correction. From there Alex is released and, unable to commit any violent acts without feeling sick, is forced to confront the world he helped create. This is hammered home time and again, be it from his family or even his old droog pals.
This is McDowell’s film, a performance that he’d be hard pressed to beat in any of his other roles. To say as much is perhaps being unkind to his more recent work, but the fact remains that Alex is one of cinema’s most iconic characters and it was always going to be tough to achieve similar notoriety in any other role. Okay, so he was the guy who managed, inadvertently, to kill Captain James Kirk in Generations, but the point remains.
At the time of release it was criticised for its violent and sexual content, and following Kubrick’s withdrawal of the film from general release it wasn’t then available until a year after Kubrick’s death. In hindsight it’s understandable why Kubrick chose to withdraw the film, although I expect the violent threats made against him and his family were a large influence on his decision.
And what exactly do we learn in the end? That any attempt at correction is seemingly doomed to fail, that if you’re twisted in the head you will most likely never reform and fall back into your usual old habits. Whether this is a deliberate move on Kubrick’s part or not, this does appear to be the overall message. From a slightly wider perspective, it appears to be asking the audience to question their role in society, the role of those who have been tasked with acting as our guardians and protectors, and to question their motives, especially when their attempts at behavioural correction are as medieval as this.