Why ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece

As ‘A Clockwork Orange’ returns to cinemas, we ‘viddy’ what makes it Stanley Kubrick’s crowning achievement.

Last year the word ‘Kubrickian’ was added to the Oxford English Dictionary – meaning to possess “meticulous perfectionism, mastery of the technical aspects of film-making, and atmospheric visual style”. For Stanley Kubrick, atmosphere was everything. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, silence and emptiness amplify the vastness of the universe and our own insignificance. In Dr Strangelove, claustrophobia illuminates the absurdity of how small actions could bring about the apocalypse. In A Clockwork Orange, the magic comes from the power of suggestion.

The 1971 film and Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel of the same name centre around Alex and his gang of ‘droogs’ – four young tearaways who fill the long, dark nights of a not-too-distant dystopian future with ‘ultraviolence’. When Alex is caught, he becomes the state’s guinea pig for ‘The Ludovico Technique’; an experimental treatment in which criminals are given a drug to induce sickness at the mere thought of sex or violence. He becomes the clockwork orange: organic on the outside, mechanical internally.

From the droog’s now iconic uniforms, the breathtaking theatre of the brutalist sets and Wendy Carlos’ chilling retro-futuristic film score, A Clockwork Orange artfully paints an oppressive mood, but a great deal of that feeling is created in the mind of the audience. In adopting Nadsat (Burgess’ streetwise language of Russian slang), you’re forced to translate and visualise Alex’s dark urges and desires yourself. Scenes of rape and murder, while highly disturbing and jarring, were not as explicit as many were expecting from the book. Instead, Kubrick leaves it to the viewer’s imagination.

In doing so, the film adopts a Ludovico technique all of its own. You’re simultaneously repulsed and immersed in the ultraviolence. You share in Alex’s rising sickness and anxiety of the horrorshow that unfolds, but your revulsion is moral rather than physical.

While copycat movies would show violence and vulgarity all purely for shock’s sake, here it’s neither glorified or romanticised. It creates a totally Kubrickian diagnosis of society’s ever more prevalent shared disorder. Only goodness through free will can prevail, and it must. It’s just up to everyone to figure it out for themselves.

A movie poster for ‘A Clockwork Orange’

A Clockwork Orange returns to cinemas on April 5, presented by BFI. Visit here for tickets and more information

As well as a UK-wide re-release of A Clockwork Orange, there will also be a definitive two month season at BFI Southbank (1 April – 31 May, 2019) as well as the opening of Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition at London’s Design Museum (April – September 2019).