A Clockwork Orange

UK, 1971, R, 137 mins. Director: Stanley Kubrick. Stars: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Aubrey Morris.

A Clockwork Orange is not just a film, it's a legend. In England you can't even see it—director Kubrick withdrew it from general release when he feared that it might promote violence (but didn't withdraw it anywhere else in the world; hmmm). Neither can you rent it on video or see it on TV. Apart from a trip to a Sydney arthouse theatre, this is your best chance to see a cinema milestone.

Kubrick wasn't wrong: A Clockwork Orange is violent, and its impact hasn't lessened over the years (some scenes were blatantly ripped off in Romper Stomper), but compared with the gorefests of the '80s its bodycount is low. A Clockwork Orange achieves its shocking effect by using violence not gratuitously but precisely, to illustrate its mindlessness and its painfulness. It's helped by a fascinating depiction of a possible future, inspired by Anthony Burgess's novel, where aimless gangs of bizarrely clad youths make life a misery for society's usual victims. (Kubrick wasn't so far off in his predictions and his fears, then: skinheads appeared a few years after the film's release.) McDowell stars as a gang leader many would see as immoral but who is ultimately truly amoral: hence his unpredictability and menace, and hence the ambiguous reaction of many viewers to his ultimate "reformation" by the state (in some classically disturbing scenes—you'll never hold your eyelids wide open again).

A Clockwork Orange is not for everyone, but I can't agree with Kubrick's decision to pull the film, even if only in the U.K.: it's one of the most powerful films yet made, from one of the greatest directors, and it deserves to be seen.


First published in a reviews booklet of the ANU Film Group.
This page: 31 January 2000; last modified 16 February 2001.

©1994, 2000 Rory Ewins