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Where do we begin when exploring Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange? Kubrick’s movie has become part of cinematic folklore; here, its complex and uncomfortable themes continue to burrow into the minds of new viewers through a mix of excitement, disgust and intrigue. Set in a futuristic, bleak version of London, A Clockwork Orange revolves around the life of Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), a charismatic and violent young man sitting on society’s fringes. Alex is the leader of a gang known for their “ultra-violent” behaviour. However, after a series of heinous acts, Alex is arrested and subjected to an experimental procedure aimed at reforming him. Kubrick explores the consequences of this procedure and the ethical dilemmas of its use while unpicking the fears and anxieties of the era into which A Clockwork Orange was born.
The early 70s would see growing concerns of increasing crime and youth rebellion in Britain as the hope and optimism of the 1960s faded. Meanwhile, the Vietnam conflict and inequality in the United States sparked massive periods of social unrest. A Clockwork Orange wraps a changing world’s broader social divides and conflict into a story of morality, state intervention and reform. Here he explores the foundations of free will and state control, examining the repercussions of removing an individual’s ability to choose their actions. His commentary on the use of Aversion Therapy is particularly striking as Alex is subjected to psychological manipulation through a practice that defied ethics. Kubrick questions whether it is morally justifiable to strip people of their capacity for evil by denying them their humanity and freedom of choice.
Meanwhile, Kubrick explores the vast and sprawling concrete housing estates designed to bring happiness following the War, transforming them into monolithic mazes of crime and violence. Indeed, this vision would become a reality in many British 60s housing estates by the late 1970s and early 1980s. In Kubrick’s dystopian world, governmental control has led to the very behaviours Alex and his Goons display, encouraging them to impose further rules to try and stem the outcomes of their collective actions. His use of classical music, juxtaposed with scenes of extreme violence, highlights a deliberate contrast between elegance and brutality. At the same time, the drinking of milk suggests that violence can and does come from the hands of babes. The large codpieces worn by Alex and his band of goons are equally fascinating, possibly indicating a crisis of masculinity in the young and its toxic outcomes. This theme continues to talk to audiences today.
A Clockwork Orange generated significant controversy due to its graphic violence and explicit depiction of sexual assault on its release, finding itself banned in several countries and withdrawn by Kubrick himself in the United Kingdom. However, despite the controversy, it gained a cult following as it was proclaimed a cinematic masterpiece by numerous filmmakers and artists. As a result, Kubrick’s film remains an enduring classic, as it challenges audiences to grapple with a series of profound philosophical questions. Here Malcolm McDowell’s captivating performance and Kubrick’s stunning artistic direction ask us to consider the very foundations of state control, morality, free will, and rehabilitation.