Friday, May 29, 2015

Barry Lyndon (1975)

UK / USA, 184 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, William Makepeace Thackeray
Photography: John Alcott
Music: Franz Schubert, Antonio Vivaldi et al.
Editor: Tony Lawson
Cast: Ryan O'Neal, Marisa Berenson, Leon Vitali, Patrick Magee, Hardy Kruger, Steven Berkoff, Gay Hamilton, Marie Kean, Murray Melvin, Andre Morell, Leonard Rossiter, Philip Stone, Michael Hordern, Frank Middlemass

It's the 21st century, and Barry Lyndon is a 20th-century movie written and directed by Stanley Kubrick based on a 19th-century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray about a man who lived in the 18th century. Kubrick's picture, a modest success at best on release, has become so well respected now it rounds off the top 50 of the list of the 1,000 greatest films of all time according to the fine folks at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, a list that is based on a wide-ranging survey of movie critic rankings. But what is Barry Lyndon—what is it really?

Browsing the Internet for some help with this question, I was surprised to find the range of opinion on what I have always taken as a relatively straightforward (and quite well done) version of the upholstered movie, the kind of exercise Merchant Ivory perfected with approximately A Room With a View and Howards End, which has been so routinely abused since the '90s. I have looked at Barry Lyndon a certain way—our hero, named in the title, is a bit of a naïve fool, and something of a knave, but mostly he is a common man with a few uncommon skills trying to make his way in a cruel world. Come to find, others focus very hard on the knavery, with a minority more persuaded by the naiveté—and there are other interpretations as well. What's more, they often seem to work.

For many people—and ultimately, I suspect, the reason Barry Lyndon is now so well regarded critically—the narrative is only window dressing anyway for the impressive technical achievement, a matter of finding a way to film by candlelight. Yes, that's impressive—even more impressive is all the visual sense that went into the movie generally, production design, costuming, so on so forth, the overriding concern a painterly one with composition and tone, up to and including formal mimicry of famous 18th-century paintings. Barry Lyndon is a very beautiful thing to look at always, though occasionally I start to feel like the candlelit scenes are overused the way all movie gimmicks are when they are new (nowadays moving things back to front to back in 3D pictures, and CGI generally). I do understand—it's the 18th century, Jake, what are you supposed to do about nighttime interiors?

But it's the narrative aspects anyway that I appreciate most about Barry Lyndon, a long movie at over three hours, yet a very quick long movie, recounting a series of episodes in the life of our hero (born Mr. Redmond Barry, he eventually finds a way to bear the name of a peerage, Lyndon, though not the title that goes with it), done in the picaresque style out of Don Quixote. Barry's father is killed in a duel ("which arose over the purchase of some horses") when Barry is still an infant. As a young man, naively smitten with his cousin Nora, an adventuress with little interest in Barry beyond a sexual attraction, he fights a duel for her hand, kills his opponent, and must flee. On the road to Dublin he is robbed of almost everything by highway thieves and joins the army. And so it goes—that's about the first 40 minutes.

It's Barry's character that most intrigues me. He's a commoner without much merit, beyond an ability to fight well, who somehow feels entitled to be a nobleman. Well, who can blame him? For the most part there was not yet an America to provide him certain avenues of self-invention (as there was for Stanley Kubrick and for William Makepeace Thackeray if he'd wanted it, and still is for us), so a nobleman it would have to be. The prizes are there for the taking if you can get them.

A point often made by other reviewers is the casting of Ryan O'Neal and his performance. Kubrick selected a cipher movie star of the moment (perhaps best known for the saccharine Love Story) and evidently directed him to play the part about one degree Fahrenheit above death. For the most part O'Neal is stiff, slow-spoken, appearing almost drugged in places. His ruses, which succeed as often as they fail, are transparent to us even as they unfold. It's easy to take O'Neal (rather than Barry) as in over his head, duped and manipulated and used to the ends of others.

Yet he has his moments—at the deaths of a father figure who guided and protected him in the British army (Barry also spends some years in the Prussian army) and later at the death of a son, and also at another critical moment when Barry first risks disclosing himself to a man who becomes a benefactor and ally. In those scenes, Barry feels genuine, a sad and needy product of a fatherless upbringing trying to do the right things in the world. As the scenes are written and shot, O'Neal brings them off. He may not be entirely convincing (as Tom Cruise as a midtown doctor in Eyes Wide Shut also is not), but everything else is so convincing around him that he's no obstacle to sweeping us away in these moments.

Just so, the last very long duel in the picture opens into any number of interpretations, offering a surprising density to the story that is being told, simply by the resolute ambiguity. This scene, which bookends the two duels seen at the beginning, did not come from the source novel, which would seem to suggest it had some importance for Kubrick. But figuring out what that is can get tricky. The aching story of the boy with no father works there. There's another overlay that precisely gets to Barry Lyndon as the most contemptible rascal yet in that scene. And my common man looking carefully for the key decision points in a life, the moments of self-definition, also works there. It's pretty much straight-up splendid there in the end.

For a long time I took Barry Lyndon as mere upholstered movie and typical slow-moving Kubrick black comedy of immoral human beings loose in the world, with familiar antiwar notes folded in as well (not actually surprising given Barry Lyndon was made as the Vietnam War was not yet concluded). But now I think the whole story is much more than that. It's also beautiful as hell to look at. And did I remember to say the soundtrack is just about perfect?


  1. I think this has become my favorite Kubrick film. But (pardon the reference your blog title) it's something I can't quite explain so I appreciate this piece. I actually have a disagreement with a friend a while back who made the claim that Barry Lyndon was beautiful to look at but - and I may be simplifying his argument a bit here - lacked soul.

    I think that's what I expected when I first saw clips of the film way back when. I'm not particularly smitten by 18th-century costume drama (probably more so now than I was when, say, that Kubrick VHS/DVD collection was being heavily advertised on TV) and it seemed like one of the least-interesting looking Kubrick films out there.

    Then when I finally saw it, I was blown away and as I recall I watched the film twice in two days. Something about it just caught me, in an almost musical sense. Yes, it was gorgeous to look at and my attraction was rooted in the audiovisual form of the movie more than its narrative, but it was rooted in that style in what felt like a very deep way, style as substance.

    I guess that's the quintessence of Kubrick - his films are surface, yes, but the surfaces themselves are deep. Does that make sense? I don't know haha. But scenes like Barry getting rejected early on, his foray with the woman when he is a soldier (a deserting soldier as I recall - it' seen a few years), his son's death...they seem like they could be sentimental, they are delivered in a restrained, withdrawn manner, and yet they hit with an emotional gut punch that transcends sentimentality. I don't know how Kubrick does that but I suppose it's what makes him so brilliant.

    Btw, what is the image featured in your banner? I just love looking at it.

  2. Hey Joel, yeah I think over the years the candle-lighting has been overrated in Barry Lyndon and nearly everything else underrated. I'm just impressed and surprised every time I see it by how instantly engaging it is, which is sustained for most of its length. But if the candle-lighting and beauty keep people aware of it, that's good too. I agree Kubrick is very good on mapping out intricacies of surface But then something like his son's death just hits in all kinds of profound ways.

    The picture in the banner is one I took, playing with the sepia filter. It's a walking trail near where I live.

    Great to hear from you!