Barry Lyndon (1975)

Ryan O’Neal is Barry Lyndon in Kubrick’s brilliantly distant epic

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Ryan O’Neal (Redmond Barry), Marisa Berenson (Lady Lyndon), Michael Hordern (Narrator), Patrick Magee (Chevalier du Balibari), Hardy Krüger (Captain Potzdorf), Marie Kean (Belle Barry), Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady), Godfrey Quigley (Captain Grogan), Murray Melvin (Reverend Samuel Runt), Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd), Frank Middlemass (Sir Charles Reginald Lyndon), Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon), Leonard Rossiter (Captain John Quin), André Morell (Lord Wendover), Anthony Sharp (Lord Hallam), Philip Stone (Graham), Arthur O’Sullivan (Captain Feeney)

Kubrick has been criticised as a director more interested in style and the technical tricks of cinema than emotion, and there is perhaps no argument for the prosecution than Barry Lyndon. It now seems to the cineaste’s choice du jour as the greatest Kubrick film (probably partly because it is less well-known). Barry Lyndon however is like an exercise in all Kubrick’s strengths and weaknesses, a film that you can admire at great length while simultaneously caring very little about anything that happens in it.

Based on a William Makepeace Thackeray (although it feels in spirit only), Barry Lyndon tells the story of Irish chancer Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) in the mid eighteenth century. Fleeing Ireland after (he believes) killing an English officer in a duel, Barry goes from the British arm to the Prussian army, to card-sharping the courts of Europe to marrying into the aristocracy, as husband to Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). But, however hard he tries, it’s difficult for an Irish chancer to be accepted by the British aristocracy, particularly when he suffers from the vocal hatred of his wife’s son Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali). 

Kubrick spent several years carrying out research for an epic biopic of Napoleon (he had Ian Holm lined up for the lead role – Holm read multiple biographies and spent months working on a script with Kubrick). The flop of Waterloo (with a deliciously hammy Rod Steiger as Napoleon) killed off the chances of that film making it to the screen. Never-the-less Kubrick now had a vast archive of research for the period – and how easy it was to shift the focus of this research back a few decades. Thackeray’s novel was his chance to put all this to use – and allow Kubrick to indulge what had become a passion for the style of the era.

Barry Lyndon won four Oscars – and all in the areas where the film deserves unqualified praise. This is a stunningly beautiful piece of work, surely a contender for one of the most strikingly gorgeous films ever made. Ken Adam’s set design utilises a superb range of locations across the UK, dressed to breath-taking effect. The costumes, completely accurate to the period, are exquisitely detailed (Milan Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderland) and lusciously mounted. Leonard Rosenman’s score is a wonderful riff on a range of masterpieces from classical music, including Handel, Bach, Schubert and Mozart.

Most strikingly Kubrick decided to film as much as possible with natural lighting only, rather than the vast array of lighting bought in for most films. This was part of Kubrick’s intention to avoid any sense of the studio to his film – everything was to be shot on location and to help immerse the viewer in the detail of the period. Shots were framed to imitate artists of the period, in particular Hogarth. Evening scenes were shot lit only by candle-light, leading to truly stunning images, simply superbly lit. John Alcott’s photograhy utilised (and I’m serious here) NASA designed cameras used for the moon landings to capture images in such low light. Visually, Barry Lyndon may be one of the most perfect films ever made. It’s wonderful – and any doubts that Kubrick is not a true master of cinema should be dismissed.

But Kubrick’s problem, as always? He’s a technocrat artist who lacks some soul. So much time and energy has been expelled on the visuals and the design – the film took almost a year to shoot – that, while you are constantly almost hypnotised by its sublime imagery, it slowly occurs to you that you couldn’t care less about most of the events that happen in it. For all the film’s great length and beauty, it’s a cold and distant film. Kubrick turns Thackeray’s rogueish comic tale – a picaresque dance – into a chillingly sterile meditation on fate, with Barry transformed from a rogue and chancer into a lifeless, passive figure to whom things happen rather than ever attempting to instigate them. 

Is this Kubrick’s idea of humanity? Perhaps it suits the director who was the great master of intricate design and traps, that he would be tempted to turn this story into one where humans are just another piece of set dressing moved around and manipulated by an unseen force (fate, or rather a director?). The distancing effect is further by super-imposing an all-knowing narrator over the events, who frequently pre-empts what will happen and stresses the powerlessness of men. (On a side note, the book is narrated by Barry as were early screenplay drafts – perhaps the idea of O’Neal’s flat voice narrating so much of the action horrified Kubrick. It’s a definite improvement to get Michael Hordern’s tones talking to us for three hours.)

Perhaps though, the failure to capture any sense of Thackeray’s satirical wit, is a sharp reveal of Kubrick’s own inability to appreciate comedy – without the guiding hand of a Peter Sellers to support him. The problem is exacerbated by Ryan O’Neal in the lead role. Kubrick was ordered to hire one of the top ten box office draws of 1972 in the lead role – alas only O’Neal and Redford were the correct age and sex, and Redford (first choice) could never see himself as an Irishman masquerading as an Englishman. So O’Neal got the job – and the film is a damning indictment of his lack of charisma, flat and dry delivery and inability to bring life and energy to the proceedings (although O’Neal has blamed the editing partly for this, as well as the extended shoot). The film helped put an end to O’Neal’s career as a star (already on the wane) – and he is the film’s greatest weakness, in a role that needed more of the impish charm of Malcolm McDowell (although the lead actor from any of Kubrick’s films would have been superior). O’Neal’s presence turns Barry into a character we care nothing for, in a story already coldly distant.

O’Neal is also not helped by Kubrick’s utilising again his great love of striking British character actors – every role is filled with a recognisable face from 1970s British film and TV, each bringing colour and vibrancy to their (often brief) scenes. From Leonard Rossiter – weasily as you’d expect – as the captain Barry thinks he kills, through Patrick Magee’s ambivalently sinister Chevalier, Marie Kean’s loving mother, Murray Melvin’s obsequious priest, Godfrey Quigley’s matey army officer there is not a weak turn elsewhere in the movie. Leon Vitali brings real depth and energy into the film late on as Barry’s son-in-law and hated rival. Even Marisa Berenson – reduced to a dozen lines at most – makes an emotional impression as a woman trapped into serving the needs of the men in her life.

All these actors however are revolving in a movie that gets stuck and overwhelmed in its own grandeur and beauty. There are many wonderful sequences – with the film bookended by two duelling sequences that explore the strange rules and conventions with this society with a vicious black humour. Kubrick’s points about the oppressive insularity of the establishment – and the amount of forgiveness it has for its own, compared to the instant judgement of the outsider – are generally well-made, but are at times so laced with the director’s own cynical views of humanity in general (an increasingly clear trait in his later work) that they carry little impact. Despite this the film is never less than strangely captivating, even if its very easy to let it drift past you rather than invest in it.

But above all, while the film is stunning and the direction of Kubrick near faultless, the film itself gets so close to a great painting that it becomes something you hang on the wall to admire, but not to invest in. Kubrick couldn’t match his genius with the sort of emotion or wit that the story needed (much as it’s vastly superior to Tom Jones, that film gets closer to the spirit of authors like Thackeray than this ever does). Instead, he creates a coldly sterile world, like a perfect experiment in form and style that totally forgets such trivial elements as character and story. For all the film is full of character and events, you’ll find you care very little about them – and that the brilliance of Kubrick is only a partial consolation for that loss.

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