Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Stanley Kubrick’s life and career have become shrouded in a series of myths that seem to only gain traction as the years pass since he died, even as books and research largely fail to bear them out. Many of these are about his personal life and difficult working methods, tied into a lifelong reputation as an obsessively reclusive misanthrope. The one that seems most widespread is a specific interpretation of his work that seems terribly misguided, that of Kubrick as the objective, cold and distant director, detached and unfeeling. The camera, the scene, the setting, aesthetics and symmetry are everything; people are just pawns to be manipulated within his frame. This positions him in marked opposite to filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Jean Renoir for the importance supposedly placed on human beings, and to Charlie Chaplin, Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg for his aversion to overt emotional display.
We can spend a lot of time discussing the line between unsubtle emotional catharsis and pure schmaltz; no one accuses John Ford of being a flat, unsympathetic recorder of human behavior, but it’s typically only possible to observe the character relationships in his work on a microcosmic scale, so subtle and buried are their nature and evolution. And Alfred Hitchcock famously was accused again and again of considering camera as having precedence over actor, a misconception he mostly allowed to stand. Yet Kubrick seems to have caught the brunt of this criticism over the years, perhaps because his work is sufficiently multifaceted and open-ended that it can appeal to the early budding film enthusiast as easily as the lifelong scholar, leading to some resentment and slagging off of him as a first-year student, hipsterish phenomenon… and also as a purveyor of joyless self-importance. In this theory Kubrick would never dwell on, say, the face of a child who’s been injured and whose death is near, watching him as he does his best to stoically comfort the two parents who are watching over him in obvious agony, taking their hands and begging them to get along after he’s gone. That sounds far more like the archetypal Spielberg moment, if anything, but regardless of outside comparisons it’s directly at odds with the typical perception of who Kubrick was as a filmmaker and what kind of movies he made.
Except, of course, the described scene happens in Barry Lyndon, Kubrick’s lyrical, sensitive, witty and visually indescribable period drama of the somewhat more ribald Thackeray novel. He does not move the camera away from the dying boy’s face. He takes no distance at all, focusing completely upon the child and his weeping parents, and we feel truly crushed by it. A smash cut takes us to the dramatically depicted funeral of the boy, all ceremony and foreboding and exquisite largeness falling upon a pair of parents who’ve never felt lower or smaller. And what you think of in the aftermath is how common such moments are in Kubrick’s filmography, those that shoot holes in the idea of him as a noncommittal observer. None of his films is wholly absent of emotion, but Barry Lyndon most of all is the key to unraveling the director’s supposed nihilism, because it so cleanly and engagingly lays out the distinction between the beating heart of a person and the unfeeling world that surrounds him or her, a conflict in which Kubrick is completely engaged and firmly on our side even if he does find time to laugh grimly at it all.
After the release of A Clockwork Orange in 1971, the original intention was for Kubrick to complete his long-gestating Napoleon project; he spent years on elaborate, obsessive research for that film but for various reasons was never able to begin shooting it. He then recommissioned much of the material he unearthed about Europe in the eighteenth century for a slightly smaller but still florid and epic story, a romantic odyssey but more directly a coming-of-age fable about a weak, petty young man who attains wealth and then, after it’s too late, reaches maturity. Barry Lyndon is the only costume drama he ever made, his first period film since Spartacus, and completely unique in his output. One could spend a great deal of time simply untangling the film’s aesthetics: in this regard, it is not thoroughly dissimilar to 2001 or A Clockwork Orange but on a number of technical fronts it’s the most impressive movie he made.
What separates this immediately from other lengthy dramas of its kind is its vast, three-dimensional appearance, and by extension the entirely convincing completeness of its world. Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund’s immaculate costume design, aided by the director’s tireless investigation of the period, blends with the great Ken Adam’s outstanding art direction team so that the frame seems infinite; we feel as though we are in the film, and that when we look away we will continue to be. Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott contribute heavily to the sense of authenticity, using paintings of the time to envision both affluent and common life in intricate detail before electric light — in candlelit scenes, with the aid of cutting-edge lens technology courtesy NASA. The illusion is entirely convincing; Kubrick’s usually static, almost invariably slow-crawling camera is undoubtedly meant to evoke the art gallery, but rendering these rooms, hills, valleys, battlefields, forests as intoxicatingly real, lived-in places has the effect of making familiar images from art suddenly spring to life, thereby energetically unfastening us from the present day like few other films. What we see is lavish, but it’s never showy or unbelievable. In other words it’s seduction, not assault.
It’s not an uncommon sentiment, but it’s still valid: you really could hang nearly all frames from this movie on your wall. It doesn’t “look” like the Clockwork Orange stereotype of Kubrick’s films, showing how far he took this outside of any pretense for style or design; it’s just achingly, gobsmackingly beautiful, but not at the expense of identification with and absorption in its characters — filtered through an outsider protagonist so that the opulence is as striking to him as to us. Essentially, every technical and aesthetic value of the picture immerses us further in the story itself, without which its obvious sumptuousness would be nothing. Kubrick made no claims to originality of design, though the painstaking level of craftsmanship would often be shattering if it could distract us from the absorbing story. As both spectacle and narrative it’s the best manifestation of the notion in Dr. Strangelove and 2001 of the smallness of individual people shrinking to invisibility in an unfathomably large universe.
The simplistic version of Barry Lyndon would be this: a man who cannot keep his emotions in check is mired in confusion, is exiled from home, and the poor pitiful fool fights for an identity, which he finds with a noble family of means into which he marries, but there is conflict because of the family’s decorum and the man’s aloof nature, and after a brutal war with his stepson, the man is cast off, all but forgotten. The moral would be equally simple, of course, and right out of Dickens — often the ideal for what we should be is dangerous and will ultimately corrupt and destroy us. Simple isn’t Kubrick. We have some degree of identification with Barry, who is nonetheless naive and sometimes hurtful, but also with the Lyndons, the family whose fortunes collide with his in the second half. Neither Kubrick nor the omniscient narrator voiced by Michael Hordern are impartial in this. In fact, a major theme of the film is the inability of most of its characters to really open to one another as “societal” obligations set in; only the director is able to show that he cares about all of them, until surrendering to the futility of their blind follies.
Undoubtedly because Thackaeray’s novel was in its original form a serialized novel, Barry Lyndon is a series of episodes — akin, in the first half, to a sort of comically inept variation on the escapades of something like The 39 Steps with their odd twists and reversals, lopsided to a long, resigned third act that emphasizes the futility of Barry’s rise to prominence — that capture degrees, accumulations of change in the lead character. As Redmond Barry, Ryan O’Neal opens the film a shuddering mess of sexual repression and jealousy who almost hoodwinks his family out of a permanent fortune by attempting to wreck a marriage between his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) and a captain from the British Army (Leonard Rossiter, hilariously sniveling); after a duel, he goes into exile but is immediately robbed of the money his doting mother (Marie Kean) has sent with him. Broke and naive, he enlists in the army but quickly grows disgusted and terrified of the violence and deserts, when he experiences a fling with a lonely German housewife (Diana Koerner) then is essentially captured, after a series of fibs is exposed, by a Prussian army officer. He spends the remainder of the Seven Years War fighting, and at the end is given a job as a spy for the police nosing around a rich Irishman who’s set up shop in the country as a professional gambler. When Barry instead helps him flee, their philandering around Europe collecting money from the rich and powerful at card tables culminates in his catching sight of Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson).
The Lyndons are in a state of discontent, with the patriarch Sir Charles Reginald Lyndon ill and near death, his wife lonely and their child Lord Bullingdon possessive and fragile. At first Barry seems mostly to value Lady Lyndon for her wealth and thereby the potential of being set for life by marrying her, though from their very first meeting (the unfathomably lovely, wordless balcony scene, when the two of them leave the gambling table to share a first forbidden kiss) there is clearly some carnal desire that encircles both of them. They have a child, Bryan, together and their relationship seems to become more complicated, possibly closer, over time, though the film carefully withholds a great deal of information about their marriage. Though Barry’s misguided quest for a title — spurred on by his mother, who’s now joined the Lyndon household — leads the house to financial near-ruin, the two great tragedies in the final hour of the film involve the children. Young Bryan is killed when a horse throws him, and Lord Bullingdon first exiles himself from the home over his hatred of (and perceived abuse by) Barry, then after his mother attempts suicide in despondency over her younger son’s death he returns to overtake the house of Lyndon again, and to take his stepfather in a duel.
That climactic duel is the most crucial scene of the film, and the most suspenseful and striking. Held in a seemingly abandoned tithe barn with a straw floor and birds fussing about, a dim specter of light floating in from the cross-shaped windows, it captures — like the much earlier duel initiated by a hotheaded young Barry — the actual fear in the hearts of both men involved in a battle that could result in death or paralysis for either of them. (This, along with some earlier narration about the sport-like attitude toward war held by the upper classes, show an abhorrence toward violence that defy the idea of Lyndon as an impartial story.) After Bullingdon’s pistol misfires, Barry takes his turn to deliberately fire his gun into the ground — in that single moment, demonstrating his growth away from the dead-eyed adolescent we once knew into a man whose compassion even for his enemies outweighs his desire for personal gain. Bullingdon, however, remains hot for revenge and wounds Barry, requiring his leg to be amputated, then paying him to leave England permanently and never see Lady Lyndon again, reasserting control over all Lyndon affairs himself. Finally, an epilogue announces the greatest truth of all: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.” Rarely has such a quiet, dark ending to a three-hour epic felt so right. And this, of course, is the essence of the dim view herein taken of war, class, violence: the point of it all is nil. The beauty that surrounds these actions, in contrast, creates a meaning all in itself.
Despite its three-hour running time (divided precisely in half between Redmond’s rise and fall), Barry Lyndon rolls along at a breakneck pace unrivaled by any of the director’s other projects. Scarcely a frame is wasted, scenes rarely linger for longer than absolutely necessary — the slowest moment may in fact be the climax, which ratchets up tension methodically — and we explore such a number of places and meet such a number of people it can seem overwhelming on paper, but not when you see the film. The massive amount of information is cogently delivered, perhaps because Barry is always the focus, rendering this a relentlessly captivating study of a time and a world through one man. Kubrick’s remarkable script uses voiceover and dialogue elegantly, and yet we could see the whole thing without sound and still basically understand it, the mark of true pure cinema.
The tone Kubrick strikes, especially in the narration delivered by Hordern, walks an impressively thin line between wit and editorializing that almost comes across as boredom; there’s speculation his is an unreliable, Pale Fire-style commentary on what we’re seeing. It can feel almost as if he’s shuffling notes, which makes his more than mildly comedic, amusingly unimpressed delivery instantly engaging from the very first scene. The narration, which is clearly a large part of what makes this film both so unique and so initially off-putting to a lot of people, is a challenge to the film’s actual occupants, whose pathos is sufficiently weighty at times that without the counterpoint, the film might become sugary. It’s mostly instead used as a convenient basis for dramatic irony; one particularly devastating instance is when, as we watch the Lyndons play a game of croquet with their young son, Hordern casually announces that the child will eventually die and that Barry himself will die alone and penniless, forty-five minutes or so before we come about this knowledge naturally. (Compare this with the moment when Hordern undercuts a tender, romantic departure between the lonely German army wife and Barry earlier in the film by commenting sardonically on how many other men had filled the same shoes before Barry.) Still, the characters are textured and warm and this is never distorted by Hordern, only mocked a bit. It’s almost as if Kubrick intends the film as a test of our compassion: if we can be told all of this is pointless and not at all unique or noteworthy, does it stop a single one of us from caring anyway?
The richer commentary is provided, of course, by Kubrick himself. He rhymes scenes in the first and last halves of the picture, suggesting a vicious cycle, with a pair of fights each displaying Barry as a progenitor of chaos within order — first in the midst of an army mealtime then at a concert at the Lyndons’ mansion when he clocks his stepson. Interestingly, both scenes are captured via handheld camera and thus creating another disruption, here to the careful setups of the remainder of the film. There too is the obvious use of the two duels to frame the picture, and to chart Barry’s progression as a man. Except perhaps Spartacus, 2001 and his first two features, every Kubrick film is about male hubris, and his attitude toward macho posturing and violence becomes more glowering as he ages, but arguably Barry is the only Kubrick hero before Eyes Wide Shut to demonstrate actual growth.
For the leading role, Kubrick could not possibly have made a more bizarre choice than Ryan O’Neal, who grapples with the accent and seems most of the way through like a teenybopper accidentally placed in a period epic, and yet this is the very idea. The incongruity of his performance creates uncertainty, vulnerability, that give dimension to every step in his life we are permitted to witness. Redmond is a child, done in by his own need to conform and his inability to adapt to any life except the one he imagined for himself as a boy. Our feelings about Redmond are conflicted, but in the end he must carry the movie and we must walk out along with him, flaws and all, as he embarks upon — unseen to us — the sad final stages of his existence. Thanks to the tentative, wavering wishy-washiness and misplaced aggression of its lead character, Barry Lyndon is The Graduate, to an extent, but it’s also Peter Pan. We like him even though he’s a shrimp and he eventually gives evidence of a kind heart, but he is also an immature opportunist operating blindly, never, indeed, willing to grow up, and making chaos of lives around him. (Whether some of those absurdly privileged lives may deserve such destruction is another matter, left mostly but not entirely under the surface.)
The most puzzling and fascinating character offered is Lady Lyndon; Berenson portrays her with a stirring coolness that plainly hides pain, until she erupts after Bryan’s death in such a way that implies she only now is becoming an actual breathing person. In Thackeray’s novel she was hardly addressed and she has little dialogue in the movie, something director and actor both conquer effectively. Her first meeting with Barry must count as one of the most evocative and beautiful scenes in a film. Later, in one of the more enigmatic sequences, Barry is caught embracing another woman, and he enters as his wife bathes to apologize, and between them there is suddenly a reprise of the earlier kiss and we witness a strange but altogether comforting kind of understanding between them that, despite the wild events that unfold in the final hour, never really disappears. It’s a silent connection, a strength hardly elaborated upon but easily felt by the audience. As the film ends, with Redmond forcefully removed from her life forever by her oldest son, in one last devastating scene we watch as Lady Lyndon goes through the motions of writing her monthly checks and comes to the latest installment in Barry’s payoff. Something happens to her eyes — the memory of everything that is now permanently gone, as if it never even happened — and she seems shaken, prodded along silently by her son but still lost in that world for the moment. There are a thousand unknowable things in her expression. She provides the emotional essence of all that’s happened, a pain that can’t be cast aside by literary device or irony.
And that may be perhaps the greatest tragedy of the conclusion. Barry still has his mother, while his former stepson is left with his (the real love of his life), but we never are able to discern how Lady Lyndon really feels except that as we leave her, we know that what she truly wants is of little concern to those around her, that despite her status, she has been as buried in compromise and shallow disdain as her former husband. Barry Lyndon isn’t just the story of a man’s demise at the hands of society, it is the story of the corrosion of a family. The death of Barry’s son is the death of both of his parents, and his final plea to them is precisely the kind of heartrending devastation people deny Kubrick would dream of presenting.
A film that lives in memory like this feels like a dream, a good approximation for what’s going on in Lady Lyndon’s head in that final scene, and a memory of this kind of sensory experience would be incomplete without music, which is an aspect of Barry Lyndon inseparable from its visual beauty. Kubrick rarely used conventional film composers after his blow-ups with Alex North in the ’60s, always preferring source music, in this case a group of classical pieces, as well as marches and Irish folk, that entirely alter the film’s sense of breadth and romance. Handel’s Sarabande functions as the theme and becomes as much a part of the picture’s identity as Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra did in 2001. This is given a florid and very Kubrickian arrangement in the main titles but also a bare, percussive variant in the duel scenes. The most striking composition in use here is Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2, invoked only after Lady Lyndon first appears and functioning as a sort of love theme — its associations with the film are such that, despite its individual fame as a composition, one’s familiarity with the film permanently changes it for the listener. As is typical for him, Kubrick makes use of repetition to increase the emotional resonance of these pieces as they disappear and then repeat, or are altered, as the film progresses. Thus, a movie that has no actual “movie music” becomes one of the premier examples of the use of scoring in cinema. It’s music mostly contemporaneous to the depicted period, but one can hardly imagine any other scoring more brilliantly summarizing these characters and events regardless of the setting.
But Kubrick does not let us forget this is a period piece and that its finality, the impending doom of its characters, is therefore inevitable, as shown by the droll closing title card. Kubrick makes surprisingly explicit the ticking timebomb of death; as implied by the way most lives in the film cycle around to their original state at the conclusion, Barry Lyndon exhibits non-permanence as life philosophy — or maybe just as an inextricable, inescapable aspect of existence itself. Lyndon also serves as a welcome refinement of the well-intentioned, brilliant but unsatisfying A Clockwork Orange; yet again, the worst tendencies of the individual are less troublesome in the end than the worst tendencies of the chaotic “order” — the one he escapes and the one he enters. For all his selfishness, Barry never seems to really get to know or give in to himself. Because of all this, Barry Lyndon is an epic with a difference, a tragedy with the smallest bit of hope, a portrait of utter waste, of humanity wrecked by decadence, but one that never exhibits hostility. Somehow, despite such despair, it’s a gigantic movie of grand texture and wholly unbridled compassion. These are not traits automatically associated with Stanley Kubrick, but no one except Kubrick could have made this.
[Drastic rewrite of a review first posted in 2005.]