A Clockwork Orange (1971)

2015 #152
Stanley Kubrick | 137 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

Yet more dystopian sci-fi! Who doesn’t love some dystopian sci-fi? Here we’re in the ’70s, though (makes a change from the ’80s), with writer-director Stanley Kubrick adapting Anthony Burgess’ novel into a film so controversially violent the director himself eventually banned it from release in the UK for decades. Almost 45 years on, it’s testament to the film’s power that it is still in parts shocking.

Set in a glum future Britain, the film follows eloquent juvenile delinquent Alex (Malcolm McDowell), whose violent acts eventually catch up with him when he’s imprisoned. Being the cocky little so-and-so that he is, he manages to get himself on a programme for rehabilitation and release… though that may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

The first half-hour or so of A Clockwork Orange is brilliant. I think there’s a reason this is the part that the majority of clips used when discussing the movie are lifted from, and it’s not just to do with spoilers: here is where the best imagery, and the most potent examinations of violence and the male group psyche, are to be found. It’s shocking and uncomfortable at times, funny and almost attractive at others (hence the perceived need for the ‘ban’), but the cumulative effect is precise and striking.

However, everything from Alex’s admission to prison onwards could do with tightening, in my view. It may be sacrilege to say this, but I think the film would benefit from having a good 15 to 20 minutes chopped out. All the prison bureaucracy stuff is funny, but is it relevant? “Relevance” isn’t the only deciding factor about what goes into a film, of course, but I feel like we’ve seen plenty of red-tape spoofing elsewhere. Maybe that’s just an unfortunate byproduct of the film’s age. Other parts just go on a bit too long for my taste — there’s barely a sequence after Alex’s arrest that I didn’t feel would benefit from getting a wriggle on. I don’t think this is me bringing a youth-of-today “everything must be fast cut” perspective to the film, I just found it needlessly languorous at times. Maybe I was missing a point.

McDowell’s performance is fantastic throughout. I’ve seen Alex referred to as a villain (not often, but by at least one person), which strikes me (and, I’m sure, many others) as remarkably reductionist and point-missing. He’s not a hero, certainly — a mistake I think some critics of the film made, in part because the use of voiceover invites us to identify with him, and I guess anyone other than the hero having a voiceover narration was fairly new 45 years ago (feel free to correct me on that point). But he’s not a villain, especially when he comes up against the terrifying forces of the establishment. McDowell’s performance, and Kubrick/Burgess’ storytelling, is thankfully more complex than that.

That continues right through to the ending, which is quite different in the novel and film — though I say this as someone who’s not read the book, so apologies if this is off base. Reportedly Burgess ends with Alex moving away from violence of his own free will, primarily because he’s grown up and grown out of it; the point basically being that all young men go through a violent phase (even if Alex’s is extreme) and then grow out of it. Kubrick ends on a much more ambiguous note… so ambiguous, I’m not really sure what it’s saying… or even what all the ambiguities actually are…

A Clockwork Orange remains a striking film, and not just because of the ultra-violence. It’s at its best early on, with the remainder not always working for me, but it’s a fascinating experience nonetheless.

4 out of 5

A Clockwork Orange was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Red Riding: 1980 (2009)

aka Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980

2009 #51
James Marsh | 93 mins | TV (HD) | 15

This review contains major spoilers.

Red Riding: 1980The second instalment of the Red Riding Trilogy sets out its stall with a stunning opening montage, covering six years of the Yorkshire Ripper case in as many minutes through news footage and faux news footage. In one fell swoop this establishes its own storyline, fills in some of what’s happened since 1974, and sets itself apart from its predecessor: this one’s based on fact. Well, a bit.

Unfortunately, a factual grounding hasn’t helped the story one jot. Where the first idled, this meanders, flitting between the Yorkshire Ripper, the investigation into the Karachi Club shooting (which closed 1974), and the private life of lead character Peter Hunter. It’s the cover up surrounding the middle of these that’s the most interesting, but that’s also the bit with the least time devoted to it. Most is spent on Hunter’s investigation into the investigation of the Ripper case, though by the end it becomes apparent this exists to cover the ‘real’ story — which is, of course, the Karachi Club cover up. Consequently neither are covered with the appropriate depth: the Ripper investigation is never a serious thread, the team we follow uncovering nothing significant and the Ripper himself captured by chance, off-screen, by a previously-unseen regular constable; and the incidents at the Karachi Club, and their lasting impact, are just about clarified but given no serious weight before a last-minute explanation.

If that sounds complicated, it isn’t. As in 1974, it’s all too straightforward: the people you suspect did it actually did, as it turns out, and there’s no serious attempt to conceal that. In fairness, it just about manages one surprise, right at the end, and the moment after this — where Hunter’s murderer shows remorse with one brief, subtle facial expression — is by far the best bit of the film. Worse than the lack of suspense, 1980 seems to forget its own plot all too often. Hunter is employed by the Home Office, for example, and told to report directly to them and them alone. But then we never see those characters again, not even when he’s later dismissed by lower-ranked officers — why not return to the men he was, supposedly, actually employed by? Other plot points are pushed aside too soon, forgotten about or just abandoned.

Characters and locations resurface from the first film — an unsurprising continuity, but pleasingly almost all appear in a context that’s actually relevant to the plot, rather than a mere catch-up on a previously-known person. Some of them have great import now, their role in the trilogy apparently fulfilled, while others remain little more than cameos with no bearing on the story, suggesting an even bigger part still to play. This works quite well, creating a real world where characters come and go rather than one that is obsessively — and unrealistically — interconnected.

The same can be said of the cinematography. Marsh frequently finds a beautiful or unusual shot, enlivening proceedings considerably. The 35mm glossiness doesn’t evoke the feel of a grimy past quite so thoroughly as Jarrold’s hazy 16mm, but as this is now the ’80s perhaps that’s the point. Nonetheless, the setting conveyed is still a drab, dreary — and constantly damp — North.

Underscored by a plot that doesn’t really come together, and largely bears little relation to the other two films, 1980 is the weakest entry in the trilogy.

3 out of 5