A Clockwork Orange at the BFI Southbank

A Clockwork Orange - BFI poster 2019Since A Clockwork Orange reemerged in the U.K. following the death of its director Stanley Kubrick I think it’s safe to say I’ve seen it more than my fair share of times across all the main formats of home media, as well as reading the source novella by Anthony Burgess and his stage play adaptation, but this was my first time seeing it projected on a cinema screen, thanks to a season of Kubrick’s films at the BFI Southbank in London.

With this in mind I did wonder how much extra I might get out of seeing the film once more, but, as soon as the discordant synth score blasted from the speakers and the screen was filled with those garishly bright title cards, it was clear this would be rather different.

The film is loosely divided into two sections (excising the book’s supposedly morally troubling third act) following ‘our humble narrator’, a delinquent youth called Alex De Large (Malcolm McDowell) as he’s wreaks havoc on society and then it, in turn, wreaks havoc on him.

A Clockwork Orange - Dim, Alex and Georgie
Dim (Warren Clarke), Alex (McDowell) and Georgie (James Marcus)

From that opening shock of noise and colour, followed by the slow creep through the Korova Milk Bar, Kubrick right away plunges us into a world that I don’t think was ever meant to be a real place but a metaphorical dystopian near future.

Into this, as Kubrick presents iconic image after iconic, Alex is our twisted guide seeking to show us his world through which, through his eyes (and Kubrick’s somewhat distancing style), appears as a kind of dream – a dream that to any rational observer would be a nightmare but in today’s parlance very much plays on the notion of toxic masculinity, albeit clouded by a youthful fervour that is worryingly understandable.

The second portion of the film then sees the reality of this dystopian future try to reassert itself through the medium of the 1970s – this does make the whole thing feel rather odd though is also where a lot of the humour comes from.

A Clockwork Orange - Alex in eye clamps
Alex undergoes the Ludovico Technique

Some of this is unintentional due to the dated futurism but a lot remains hewn into the script and the characters in a way I hadn’t recognised as clearly before.

A prime example being the prison guard (Michael Bates) who is frankly hilarious and could easily have come from prison sitcom Porridge as well as the undeniably satirical representation of not just the government’s Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp) but also the political opposition, all of whom come across as either out for their own gain or ultimately laughably useless (or both) – very much backing up Alex’s own vision of this world.

While seeing the film projected with an audience brought out more comedy than I was expecting that’s not to say it isn’t still shocking and certainly this presentation heightened that side too.

A Clockwork Orange - Alex in the tunnel
One of Kubrick’s iconic portrait like shots of Alex

While the opening part is shocking whatever what you look at it due to the nature of the ‘ultraviolence’ practiced by Alex and his ‘droogs’, simply seeing it writ so large, bright and loud makes it all the more so, but for me it was the abuse of Alex in the second half that was made more impactful here.

From the famous eye clamps of the ‘Ludovico Technique’ (which, legend has it, caused actual permanent damage to McDowell’s eyes), to his ‘arrest’ and beating by former friends turned police officers, to his treatment at the hands of the political rebels, somehow Alex becomes a character we really can side with despite his past infractions.

This all culminates in a final scene that is masterwork of subversive comic timing on the part of  both Kubrick and McDowell which is frankly astonishing, and again even more so in this format.

A Clockwork Orange - Malcolm McDowell and Stanley Kubrick on set
McDowell and Kubrick on set

I’ll admit that Kubrick maybe tries to say too much across the film so it’s outlook becomes muddled, though based on much of his other work he doesn’t ever really seem to stick to a single message, rather leaving it up to the audience to find what they want in the films.

Arguably this goes against the source material somewhat but certainly the idea of the ‘clockwork orange’ remains a core part of things.

Ultimately though A Clockwork Orange remains, nearly fifty years since its original release, a starkly shocking and impactful film that I could only suggest is seen with an audience to get the most from it.

Kubrick’s auteur streak is possibly even more evident here than in much of his other work and the central performance by McDowell is astonishingly captivating and it’s messages remain as potent and relevant now as they did on its initial release.

And here’s the BFI trailer for their Kubrick season…

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